A visit from St Nicholas – and his many odd companions
The pre-Christmas season got into full swing in Switzerland this weekend, heralding several days of festivities before St Nicholas day next Wednesday.
One of the biggest festivities was in Fribourg. Dressed as a bishop, a student from the Jesuit College of St. Michael rode a donkey through the city on Saturday, accompanied by musicians and youngsters in coloured robes.
At the cathedral, he gave a speech, which was followed by fireworks and an enormous confetti fight, all in honour of St Nicholas.
Patron of both the city and canton of Fribourg, the real St Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, today the Turkish town of Demre. After his death in the fourth century, he quickly became one of the most revered saints in Christendom, first in Byzantium and Russia and then in the west.
In paintings, St Nicholas is usually shown with three bags of gold. These represent the money he tossed through a stingy nobleman’s window to provide his three young daughters with dowries, thereby preventing them from being forced into prostitution.
Other pictures portray the saint next to a barrel with three small children in it. These are boys that he raised from the dead after they had been slaughtered and pickled by a butcher who was trying to pass them off as pork.
Because of these legends – two of many – Nicholas became the patron saint of children. For centuries now on December 6, in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, he has brought young people sweets and gifts.
In some places he comes unseen during the night of December 5 and leaves his offerings in shoes that have been filled with hay for his donkey and put outside the door.
In Switzerland, however, “Samichlaus” usually comes in person on the evening of December 6, wearing a hooded red robe, ringing a small bell and carrying a burlap sack of gifts.
He quizzes children about their good and bad deeds of the past year. Once praise and blame have been distributed and the children have recited their obligatory verses, the bishop rewards them with presents prepared by their parents.
Often the sack-bearer is not Samichlaus himself but his companion, a dark clothed figure with a blackened face who may threaten to carry bad children off in the sack. He answers to many names, depending on where he appears: Schmutzli, Père Fouettard, Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Schwarzpeter, Hans Muff, Tüffeler and Belzebock are just some of his names.
To understand why the saint is accompanied by a devil, one must go back to the pre-Christian era when the month of December was a terrifying time of demon-filled darkness, during which people prayed to their gods for light. With animal sacrifices and protective rites, they tried to ensure that the days would lengthen once again.
Over the centuries, the festival of St Nicholas has become inseparably entangled with Celtic and Germanic attempts to frighten away winter’s demons using light, noise, and hideous disguises.
This is particularly true in German-speaking Switzerland, where many villages celebrate December 6 with parades that involve lanterns and the ringing of enormous cowbells called “Treicheln” or “Tricheln”.
The most famous of these parades is in Küssnacht am Rigi, where “Samichlaus” in his bishop’s robes is joined by over 1,000 men, on the night of December 5. There are many different varieties of parade according to region, ranging from Basel’s Liestal to Kaltbrunn in St Gallen and from Zürich’s Wollishofen to Fiesch in canton Valais.
by Kim Hays
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