MAINZ, Germany — The little American boy standing in the middle of a large group of German kindergarten children was shouting "Santa, Santa.”
But, I didn’t have the guts to tell the young boy that his German friends were cheering the arrival of St. Nicholas, not exactly the roly-poly merry-maker he had in mind.
I had to admit that the tall father arriving in his bright red costume on the banks of the Rhine River in a small rowboat did indeed look more like an American-style Santa than the historically gaunt Bishop of Myra known as St. Nicholas.
But, it was the traditional St. Nicholas, known for his generosity to the poor, his love of children, and as the patron saint of sailors, that the German children were cheering.
St. Nick's presence illustrates another difference between “Old Europe” and the United States as many Europeans are turning to a revival of traditional, festive celebrations with less commercialization.
Traditionally, children in many European countries place their polished shoes outside their door on the eve of Dec. 6, hoping that overnight, it will be filled with gifts and goodies by Saint Nicholas. As legend goes — at least in Germany — those who behaved badly, would have a rod in their shoe the next morning instead of treats.
Tales that have been passed on for centuries also include Saint Nicholas' frightening helper, known as "Knecht Ruprecht" in Germany. Often depicted as a sinister figure in dark rags with black soot on his face, the arrival of a grim Knecht Ruprecht in place of St. Nicolas was often used as a threat from parents to discipline their children.
It certainly worked with me when I was a child.
But, today, with an overload of Santa and St. Nick images, it’s often harder to frighten children into good behavior with a dressed-up daddy.
So I was amazed to see my 3-year-old daughter cling to my neck in fear of the white-bearded man. No gentle persuasion helped that night. And, scared to death, she asked the kindergarten teacher to pick-up the present from St. Nick for her.
Saving St. Nicholas
For my children, St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 marks the official opening of their Christmas season, a countdown to Christmas Eve. For other Germans, like Eckhard Bieger, St. Nicholas feast day has become a calling to honor his traditional role.
For Bieger, a Roman Catholic priest from Frankfurt and a member of the "Saint Nicholas Initiative,” his biggest complaint is the increasing superficiality of Christmas. As a result, Bieger is now fighting for "Santa-free zones" in Germany.
"Santa Claus was exported from Germany to the United States in the 19th century and actually received his red coat from Coca Cola in the 30s, when the company dressed their drivers in that outfit during Christmas time," said Bieger in a radio interview.
As a matter of fact, a German-American artist, Thomas Nast, is said to have "invented" the image, popularly recognized as Santa Claus.
Nast first illustrated Santa Claus for the 1862 Christmas season Harper's Weekly, drawing on his native German tradition of St. Nicholas and the tradition of gift giving. For Nast, St. Nicholas was a reflection of the sacrifices many Union families gave during the Civil War.
According to Bieger, St. Nicholas and his social commitment come closer to the idea of Christmas than the modern-day shopping frenzy that many people get preoccupied with.
"We are experiencing a new movement in Germany this year where people want to bring back old traditions and hear the stories about St. Nicholas from us," said Bieger.
"Especially in southern Germany, we see Nicholas guilds and Nicholas fraternities, who carry the tradition on," added Bieger.
Christmas fruitcake pilgrimage
This year during the weeks leading up to Europe's most important holiday, the traditional Christmas markets in Germany have been packed with visitors.
Last week, tens of thousands of people gathered in the eastern German city of Dresden to watch a three-ton "Christstollen" — the regions world-famous Christmas fruitcake — ride by on a horse-drawn carriage.
The famous bakery product gave its name to one of Germany's oldest and best-known Christmas markets, the Striezelmarkt, founded in 1434. For many Germans, no distance is too far when it comes to getting this special taste of Christmas.
"It's great. We came from Bavaria, southern Germany, to Dresden just for this, driving almost 300 miles, only to visit the Striezelmarkt. We're really enjoying it," said Friedbert Gaertner.
American soldiers enjoy the respite
Even the American soldiers and their families stationed overseas are drawn to the four-week spectacle in December.
"There is strong interest in our tours to the large Christmas markets. For many Americans, the quaint markets are indicative for what Christmas in Europe is like," said Fred Jeter, the director of the United Service Organization in Wiesbaden.
The USO has been supporting deployed soldiers and their spouses across the globe for centuries and efforts to give the young American families an introduction to local life and traditions.
"For me, the Christmas markets are a journey back in time, reminders of a more simple life," said Jeter.
But, no matter what the taste is, it will (hopefully) be a Frohe Weihnacht — a Merry Christmas.