Kleeserchersdag/Niklosdag traditions explained
Before you go about putting your slippers by the fire on 5 December, we consulted some Luxembourgers to discover the original traditions of Kleeserchersdag or Niklosdag. So if you want to know the full story and the right way to celebrate , read on.
Saint Nic is from Turkey
Saint Nicolas was a bishop in what is now Turkey, who died in 345AD. Members of the St Nicolas cult offered gifts during a pageant held to mark his death on 6 December, and that is where the origins of gift giving and the saint come together.
In the Middle Ages, Saint Nicolas was designated as the patron saint of children. In Luxembourg he is known as Kleeschen, he wears a red mitre or bishop's hat, carries a bishop’s staff, and is accompanied by a donkey.
Housécker and his switch
Kleeschen's sidekick, Housécker, is usually dressed in dark clothes, there to give naughty children a flick of his switch (branches used as a whip). The bad guy is said to have been a butcher who killed three lost children who wandered into his shop. When the bishop visited him, he brought the children (salted and stored in the cellar) back to life, and transformed the butcher into Housécker as punishment, condemning him to follow Saint Nicolas in shame.
Shoes first, then a plate
The historical custom is that a week or two before the 6 December, children put their slippers or shoes outside their bedroom or by the front door at night. If they have been kind they will find a sweet or chocolate, or nuts or a mandarin inside their shoe the next morning. If they weren't kind they they get a Rutt (a small stick or branch representing a switch). You'll find templates and instructions for making and decorating a paper shoe here.
On the night of 5 December or Niklos eve, children this time leave out a plate with some hay or a carrot for Saint Nicolas' donkey and a glass of milk or coffee for the man himself.
During the night the saint will bring toys and fill the plate with sweets. He apparently has a golden key that opens all the doors. Such is the joy of children on 6 December, that primary school children in state schools also get the day off as a holiday.
It's not over yet. On the night of 23 or 24 December the "Chrëschtkëndchen" (infant Jesus) also brings gifts, this time for all members of the family, and places them under the Christmas tree. These gifts are not usually toys, but books or clothes.
Boxemännchen is a gingerbread man, made of bread and not biscuit. Traditionally it is meant to be eaten on the morning of 6 December for breakfast, but you can find gingerbread men in the shops all through November and early December. He's often also put into kind children's shoes in the run up to Niklosdag.
In the Alsace region the custom is to eat a Männele, a man-shaped brioche with raisins or chocolate. In Belgium they cook Cougnous formed in the shape of baby Jesus.
The origins of Santa
This European tradition was taken to the USA at the beginning of the 17th century by European emigrants. The Dutch for Saint Nicolas is “SinterKlaas” and it’s commonly thought that Santa Claus is derived from this.
If you’re brushing up on your Luxembourgish you can sing the Léiwe Kleeschen, Gudde Kleeschen song in the hopes that you'll wake up to lots of sweets and toys on 6 December.
Thanks to Steve Kodesch and Laurence Anciaux for providing the detailed traditions of Kleeserchersdag / Niklosdag.