Miracles, January blues and the war on Santa

Exeposé Features online (11 January 2016)

When mid-January rolls around, most of us finally give up what dwindling dregs of Christmas spirit we’ve clung onto since the New Year hangovers. The 12 days of Christmas have been and gone, you have to take the decorations down, only the absolute worst Quality Streets are left, and work life is back in full swing. The UK is officially a Santa-free zone.

But, for one German group, the big red man is shunned far earlier than January 6th. In fact, he’s banned for the whole of Christmas. And why’s that? Because according to these guys, Santa’s stolen someone’s thunder – someone much more deserving of the attention.

Basically, this is the feature that’s going to make you feel 100% less gloomy about Santa being out of the picture. Because *sassy finger click* we don’t need him anyway.

Onto the facts. The group of people who want Santa out is the Bonifatiuswerk of German Catholics – a support association for minority catholic groups in Germany. And the guy they want to replace him with? Saint Nicholas.

Up and running since 2002, with a whole website dedicated to the cause, this is a campaign the association definitely wants people to get behind.

But, what’s it all about?

“We, as the Bonifatiuswerk, champion valuable traditions with our yearly ‘Santa-Free Zone’.” Bonifatius spokesperson Patrick Kleibold told me when I got in touch.

“We’re mobilising against Santa in a tongue-in-cheek way, to put Saint Nicholas back in the forefront in society.”

“But surely Santa and Saint Nick are the same!” I hear you cry. Well, not exactly.

Anyone who’s ever studied German has probably heard about Nikolaustag, or Saint Nicholas Day. Celebrated in German-speaking countries, this winter event sees children leave out a shoe on December 5th when they go to bed. If they’ve been good, they wake up the next morning to a boot stuffed full of sweets and treats. But, if not, they get a visit from Saint Nicholas’s terrifying alter-ego: Knecht Ruprecht.

Depending on family traditions, Knecht Ruprecht can either question kids about their behaviour, leave a stick in their shoe for their parents to spank them with, or actually spank them himself. Some say he even takes children away in his sack!

Happily for German children, most of this rarely (if ever) happens. In fact, the whole Jekyll-and-Hyde story of Saint Nicholas is more akin to fairy-tales such as the gruesome stories of Max and Moritz, which are more likely used to scare German kiddies into behaving, rather than giving an accurate depiction of 19th century family life in Germany.

So, Saint Nicholas comes on December 6th, and Santa arrives later. Santa doesn’t give presents to bad children, but Saint Nick can actually beat them up or kidnap them. Are these the only differences?

Surprisingly no, and here’s where the violent fairy-tales end and the real stuff begins. Because Saint Nicholas was actually a historical figure: Bishop Nicholas of Myra. Born in around AD 280, in Patara (now part of Turkey), Nicholas became a bishop at a young age, and has since been named the patron saint of children. It’s his death that many Germans commemorate on December 6th.

But, what’s the harm in letting this historical figure blend into a jolly, mince pie-eating present bringer named Santa?

I asked the Bonifatiuswerk why it’s so important to distinguish between Nicholas and Santa.

“Saint Nicholas isn’t just the patron saint of children,” Kleibold told me. “To this day he’s also an important role model because of his solidarity and commitment to those in need.”

And now he mentions it… Saint Nicholas does have a bit of a reputation for helping those in need.

Throughout his life, Nicholas was said to perform miraculous deeds. From resurrecting three children killed by an evil butcher, to having premonitions of a storm at sea and later reviving a dead sailor, Nicholas is said to have done things no human should technically have been able to manage.

Probably his most famous good deed, though, didn’t have anything of the supernatural about it.

You see, there’s a reason children leave their shoes out on December 5th. The story goes that, during his time as Bishop of Myra, Nicholas got to know of a poor man with three daughters. The man couldn’t afford a suitable dowry for his daughters – which back then, would pretty much condemn them to stay unmarried and become prostitutes.

Nicholas wanted to help the family, but knew it would humiliate them to accept aid in public: so (the story goes) he arrived at the family’s home in the dead of night, and threw three purses of gold coins into an open window. The purses landed in the girls’ stockings and shoes, which had been left out by the fire to dry.

Saint Nick’s famous good deeds make him something of a moral compass, Kleibold told me.

“Today, his actions remind us to not just think of our own wellbeing, but to take our fellow human beings into account and not close our eyes to their need.”

All this is pretty bad news for Santa, who doesn’t seem to have done anything like this to date…

The Bonifatius spells it out pretty clearly on their campaign page:

Nikolaus was:

  • A saint
  • A holy helper and a protector
  • A reminder to do good, think of others and share joy.

Whereas Santa is:

  • An artificial figure
  • An invention of the advertising industry
  • Intended to increase trade and turnover
  • A symbol for consumerism.

And, with Germany currently attempting to house hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge, it really does seem like Nicholas is the better role model for modern-day Germans.

“In a time when millions of people are leaving their homes in fear of war and terrorism, and seeking protection in Germany, Saint Nicholas can serve as a particular example of giving and sharing,” Kleibold said.

So, there you have it. If (like me) you’ve spent the last few days moping around because of the sudden lack of Santa paraphernalia … well, at least this might help ease the separation process.

Who do we really want to celebrate: a saint who did good deeds and performed miracles all year round or a bearded dude used to bring in cash and keep consumerism ticking over?

“We want to keep hold of everything that is joyful and beautiful, sensual and reflective in our precious traditions, and not let Christmas lose its meaning,” Kleibold told me, in explanation of the decision to bring Saint Nick in and kick Santa out.

In other words: we’re strong independent people who don’t need no Santa. And, if that doesn’t beat the January blues, I don’t know what will.

>>View original Exeposé feature>>


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