Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Der Nikolaus

   Since today is the 6th of December, the feast of St. Nicholas for those who celebrate it, I thought I would send my own little Nikolaus out to you.  My father used to tell me that on this day every year, in the town where he was born in Germany, Der Nikolaus would visit in the evening.  As he passed through the streets, parents would run out of their houses to call him in for a meeting with their children.  All the children knew that the visit of this big, rough-looking man in his worn red coat wasn't a great cause for celebration.  The meeting between Der Nikolaus and a child involved an assessment of that child's behaviour since Der Nikolaus' visit the year before, and at the end of the discussion, either an orange or a beating was doled out. 

   When I asked my father if Der Nikolaus was all alone when he visited the houses, he said "yes. Well, unless maybe he had been out drinking with some friends before. He was a rough sort of man."

    In case you are wondering: the 6th of December aside, Christmas itself wasn't so frightening for my father.  He and his brothers would be called into the living room late on Christmas Eve to find that Der Christkind had visited and magically left behind a table set for a feast and a tree decorated with lit candles on every branch and presents beneath them.  I was always astonished by the idea of an incarnation of Jesus as a baby that left a trail of magic and riches behind him, and I would ask to be told about him again and again.  Sometimes I spent Christmas Eve with my father and his family and returned Christmas morning to celebrate again, in typical Canadian fashion, with my mother and her side of the family. 

   This year, I have tried to be more clever with my cards.  I made them a few weeks ago, so they will hopefully arrive on time this year!  And I tried to make the subject of the cards more obvious than last year, or the year before, since apparently not everyone wants to read the wee stories we tuck into their cards.  At least this year I don't foresee getting little notes into February asking why I made a card with a picture of cows on it.  St. Nicholas is so common there can be no confusion.

    It also happens that my husband's family has a tradition relating to St. Nicolas' feast day: my husband used to always find little treats left for him in his shoes on the morning of the 6th of December.  And up in Scotland this year, it looks as if tonight we might be receiving the wonderful gift of the first snow of the season.  So I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for snow and wishing you lots of foil-wrapped chocolates in your shoes and hot spiced drinks by the fire!


  1. This is so lovely Jodi :)
    I'm all for obscure cards at Christmas time though :)
    One of these years I'll manage to hand print mine, I'm determined!
    It would be lovely if our paths crossed in the real world one of these days....
    Wishing you warm nights and white days x

  2. How original and beautiful! There is obviously some really important conversation going on here; he seems so completely dependable and worldly-wise and the child seems relieved to be having the conversation outside and not at home. I love the breath coming from their mouths as well.

    When I was in Austria for Christmas one year they told me that Saint Niklaus comes round to schools with his alter ego, Krampus, who is a black demon with a whip and a long red tongue. Of course Saint Niklaus gives gifts to good children and Krampus punishes bad children, in extreme cases stuffing the child into his sack to devour later. Austrian children are probably very well behaved! I wonder if Germany has Krampus as well?

  3. Beautiful, and wonderful story. I love how reindeer and the character of St. Nick and all the ancient shaman stories are at least still echoing through contemporary culture with Santa. But wouldn't it be wonderful if he still maintained a bit of his wild, unpredictable self and his deep power.

  4. Beautiful!
    (My boys were a bit worried about Krampus making an appearance, but -alas - only Niklaus came by.)

  5. Thanks Rima! Printing loads of cards is great fun... especially if you can just run them through a press. Before I had that option it was pretty gruelling (sore wrists!) though I wasn't using oil-based ink back then, and that certainly added to the struggle. It's always quite pleasing to watch the cards slowly take over the house though... Next year!
    Also, I agree it would be really wonderful to meet sometime... I think we are on opposite sides of this little island though, so it'd certainly take some sorting out!

    Zoe, I'm glad you like the card... you might find one comes knocking at your door!

    Thanks for your lovely, thoughtful comment. I believe they do have Krampus in some parts of Germany, just not the part my father is from. But even without him, I think Nikolaus was pretty terrifying... and only one small part of a far stricter upbringing than I ever had! Though, my father says he thinks that these days things are more relaxed and all the kids would get an orange or some other treat.

    It's true that St. Nicholas has lost a lot in becoming Santa. And it's always sad to see the many Christmas movies for children that turn the whole story into a sort of bizarre study in the logistics of moving a lot of consumer goods. Bah humbug! ;)

    Thank you Lynn. (I'd be worried at the thought of Krampus on the doorstep too! Glad to hear they made it through the 6th!)

  6. Every time I see these cards I see woodcuts inspired by hard russian winters many decades ago, cut in times of storytellers and expressionists. Really Good Work, I mean, Jodi, my congratulations !!

  7. Thanks for your comments. I see from the news that Christmas lights have been blown down in Union Street. The rain has just turned to snow here in the past half hour.
    I love your cards. There's something about the woodcut depiction of snowy eaves that makes me feel deeply happy!

  8. What a lovely notion. Alas I haven't hand-made any Christmas cards for many years, though I think that's by far the best way, with every one a labour of craft and affection. Long ago I used to make toy-theatre Christmas cards that unfolded to reveal pop-up scenes within. Through the long Winter evenings I would patiently draw and then photocopy a design, and thereafter paint and snip and glue to assemble multiple copies. No time for such patient labours now, but here's a link to some images of one of them:


  9. PS. Your Der Nikolaus card is a delight. I love the old European Christmas traditions.

  10. Thank you Barbara!!! I am so happy my card put you in mind of all that!

    You were right about the lights. Everyone up here has been lamenting the loss of the city's new Christmas lights. I've heard we're in for more insane gales this weekend too... oh well.

    I really can't get over how lovely it is that you made tiny stages and puppets for Christmas cards! Honestly, I really have never seen more beautiful or amusing cards.