How Santa Became Bilingual & Why Nikolaus Rules (Even Though He’s Monolingual)

by Corey · 15 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: angelocesare

Mum on the Brink got me thinking with her post Marrying traditions- Santa Claus, Sinterklaas and Mikulás. She discusses the trials and tribulations of combining the myriad of Christmas beliefs for her multicultural children. One traditional story says one thing while and another story stays something completely different. How in the world can we fit these all together so that it makes sense for our children?

The truth is, my husband and I have a tendency to kind of work off the cuff. We go with what makes most sense at the moment (while also following a generally agreed upon underlying framework). Basically it comes down to inertia: laziness, procrastination and avoidance. Or: We aim to resolve situations as efficiently as possible.

For example, months before our first child arrived, my husband and I purchased a gorgeous, top-of-the-line white crib. We had planned on co-sleeping but we couldn’t pass up a such great deal (a family was selling it on craigslist) and figured we’d take off the side and saddle it up next to our bed. We put it together as soon as we got home, oohed and ahhed at it, made sure we couldn’t fit a cola can between the bars (safety check), and then we took it apart and put it into the basement to await the big day.

Months later Patrick arrived and it was clear that he would not be sleeping in a crib. We said we’d put it up when Patrick was six months old. When he was six months old, we said we’d put it up when he was a year old. Then we decided on two years old. Finally we put the crib up for sale on craigslist for the price we paid for it and that was that. We simply procrastinated long enough for the issue to resolve itself: co-sleeping was clearly where it was at in our family.

Course, by the time our third arrived, we’d become nothing short of nonchalant: While counting contractions on Easter Sunday with my mother-in-law, my husband was painting the bathroom. I called out, “It is really time to go now!” and my husband answered: “Honey, can you wait just a few more minutes? I’d love to finish up this paint so it doesn’t dry out.” What is that? Inertia, procrastination or German efficiency to the very end?

The Jolly Guy with Gifts

“Santa, allow me to introduce you to Weihnachtsmann.”
“Weihnachtsmann, darf ich vorstellen, das ist Santa.”

I do remember my husband and I talking about the whole Santa vs Weihnachtsmann categorization. Patrick was getting older and started doing what kids do: asking questions. My answers of “Hmmm, I don’t know. What do you think?” weren’t getting me very far anymore. Gifts appearing in the middle of the night were something to be investigated: “Where, exactly, mama, did these gifts come from and who brought them?”

Let me just stop here to say that if we look at these little stories that we tell our children purely from a subjective position, they are nothing short of ridiculous. I have often had to keep myself from laughing while explaining some minute detail to my children about who brought what and how. Yet I realize now that this story telling is what makes the whole thing so magical and special. As we spin and weave our own stories into the traditional ones, we make them our own; they become unique and personal for us and our family.

Being that my husband and I are practical folk, we followed the path of least resistance: Santa and der Weihnachtsmann were one in the same, they just had different names in different countries. It seemed totally plausible since my son was quickly learning that there were German and English words for everything in his life.

Logistics were the stickler: Did Santa/Weihnachtsmann come in through the door or did he come down the chimney? Did he leave gifts under the tree or in stockings hung with care on the fireplace? Did he leave gifts the evening of the 24th or in the middle of the night to be found the morning of the 25th?

I’ll just put it bluntly: there was no way we were doing away with stockings hung with care on the fireplace and the excitement of waking up to Santa’s middle-of-the-night visit. No way. Never. Need I say more?

Thus, as my children will tell you: even though der Weihnachtsmann doesn’t go down chimneys in Germany, he does in America. End of story.

Nikolaus: The Happy Outsider

Nikolaus has his own place in our family’s merry wanderers. He comes before anyone is really ready for gifts. He gets the ball rolling, so to speak. Not quite sure Christmas is really on its way? On December 6th you know it is here. Plus, in our home he comes every night bearing goodies from December 6th until December 25th. It’s no wonder my children think he rules!

In our family’s traditions, Nikolaus is completely separate from Santa/Weihnachtsmann. He’s his own man. We aren’t particularly religious so stories about Saint Nikolaus are purely historical and secular (with a little mythology thrown in to boot). We’ve never included Knecht Ruprecht (Nikolaus’ bad-guy alter-ego) in the Nikolaus story with our children and so far no questions have been asked. Being that we live in the States, there aren’t really many other families that my children can compare notes with when it comes to Nikolaus, so we have been able to just say whatever we’d like.

However, my children wanted to know why Nikolaus didn’t come to all their friends. He seemed to only visit the other German-speaking kids that they knew. Hmm, isn’t that curious?

Our take is this: Nikolaus only comes to kids who know about him. He doesn’t want to be pestering families who don’t even know who he is. How would we like it if someone came into the house uninvited and started leaving goodies in our boots? (To this my kids said that they thought it would be fantastic!) Therefore, Nikolaus visits my children simply because they know about him and want him to sneak into our home in the middle of the night and fill their little plastic boots from Germany with goodies.

Silly explanation? Maybe.
Does it get the job done?

The thing is, I don’t think that Nikolaus has minded being in a category of his own. I think he appreciates the more consistent attention that he gets from my kids, separate from the all-at-once wild hoopla around Santa/Weihnachtsmann. Nikolaus is dependable. He just does his things quietly and peacefully, leaving goodies with a gentle smile.

Breaking the News

A few weeks ago I broke the Santa/Weihnachtsmann/Nikolaus story wide open for my kids. They were getting older, becoming more suspicious, and it just felt like the right time. I was going to show them photos of their uncle dressed up as Santa. He’d stand under their window and ring bells and yell, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas.” Oddly, my children never asked why he only spoke English. But my oldest did once say under his breath, “Boy, Santa sure looks like Uncle Thomas!”. After that Santa kept his distance and didn’t say so much. We have some great photos of my brother all dressed up handing my mother-in-law a bottle of schnapps. The looks on their faces are hilarious! I laughed so hard at that photo it brought me to tears. But I couldn’t find these photos to show my kids. So, we just had “the talk” instead.

I was worried that my children would be upset about the whole thing but instead they weren’t at all. In fact, it all finally started to make sense. Immediately they started asking questions about the logistical details:

“But what about when Santa/Weihnachtsmann called Papa on his cell phone?”
“That was actually Papa. He called his cell phone from the landline phone and pretended to talk to Santa/Weihnachtsmann.”
“No way!”
“Yep. What do you think about that?”
“That sneaky guy!”
“And what about…”
The conversation went on for hours.

After breaking the story to our children, I was told that Nikolaus was the one they believed in the most simply because they had actually seen him each year at their German Language School‘s holiday event (and he looked like the real deal – he even spoke German!). He was sitting right there in that big chair on stage. How could he not be real? My kids even got a bag of sweets from him (which looked similar to what he left for them in their little boots on the mantel). What about those mall Santas? Forget it, they never had a chance with my kids.

Even though my children know the whole truth and nothing but the truth about their holiday visitors, the magic still continues. We all still talk as if these magical figures exist and I love it that way.

Looking back at it now, I think everything worked out just fine. Santa and der Weihnachtsmann simply merged into one jolly multilingual guy. Nikolaus, the monolingual German speaker, came and went on his own terms. We’ve somehow created a magical and fun-filled holiday season incorporating in each of them.

The only question that still remains this year are which cookies we should we leave out for Santa/Weihnachtsmann. I think Mandelhörnchen are his favorite.

Have you had to combine traditions for your children? How did you go about it? Or did you choose to stick with one cultural tradition completely?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maureen December 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Love this article. I grew up in Wisconsin with St. Nick and Santa Claus. My German husband grew up with St. Nick and Knecht Ruprecht and the Christkind with the Weihnachtsmann somehow thrown in there for good measure. We now live in Switzerland, where they call St. Nick Sämichlaus and Knecht Ruprecht Schmützli, and to be honest, I’m not sure if the Christkind comes on the 24th or the Weihnachtsmann on the 25th in these parts. And quite frankly, I don’t really care.

My kids get it all, all the magic. My almost three-year-old has “corrected” others when they say the Weihnachtsmann, shouting “Nicholaus!” at them. My five-year-old ate up my explanation that Santa has asked me to help him out whenever I see a really good deal at the store because his list is sooooo long. This curtailed a major temper tantrum, because all the sale items were for her younger brother, and she was absolutely thrilled to keep the secret with me — and not her brother. It also means I don’t have to buy special wrapping paper just for St. Nick/Santa/Weihnachstmann, so I’m happy.

The only thing that confuses me is how the Christkind can bring the gifts on the 24th, when Jesus is born on the 25th. But I suppose it’s a magical season. :o) My concession is that some gifts can be opened on the 24th, but stockings and other gifts are for the 25th.


2 Corey December 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Thank you for your comment, Maureen! Yea, being that my husband is from northern Germany, he didn’t grow up with the Christkind tradition, so we didn’t have to try and work that into the picture. That would have been tough!

I love what you shared about your kids. It is so funny how we can put together a good story about these characters and our kids find even better ways to make the stories all make even more sense (and thus more magical!). I don’t think we could have the fun that we are having now if my kids hadn’t really believed in the magic of it all ahead of time. I am so glad we did what we did to make it all work together.

Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Frohe Weihnachten!


3 Amanda Kendle December 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Great article Corey. My little guy is not quite 2 so he hasn’t started asking questions yet so I’m glad you’ve given me the chance to think about it before it happens! My husband’s German and we live in Australia so thus far we have done St Nikolaus on the 6th, Christkind on 24th and my Santa on 25th. Obviously there will be a few explanations needed in the next couple of years but I figure since he is getting presents three times as often as his Aussie mates he won’t be complaining even if he is a bit confused!


4 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:25 pm

LOL – great point, Amanda! I think that creating the stories and fairy tales is so much fun. My kids were delighted to learn about all of it and saw it as something as fun and magical as the fairy tales we read to them (or Harry Potter!). They enjoyed knowing that they were part of one! But I do know of other families whose children were devastated. I can imagine that each child is very different. This Christmas my children said that everything felt very similar to previous Christmas’ – so that was a good thing, I hope! Hope your Christmas was lovely and magical!


5 Beth December 11, 2011 at 4:15 am

I had such a giggle when I read your article! In our house, we have St Nikolaus who leaves little gifts in shoes on the 6th Dec and Santa who does gifts in sacks under the tree to be discovered on the 25th Dec. St Nikolaus’ job description has also expanded to include taking Santa letters via ‘internal mail’ – as according to me (when trying to think fast and calm a worried child who hadn’t sent his Santa letter on time), Santa and St Nikolaus know each other and have a special service set up for German/English speaking children! It did the trick – only now, the new tradition must be carried on! So now on the evening of the 5th, my son carefully lays out his letter and shoes! I love that he puts a lot of thought into which shoes should be laid out near his window (can’t put them outside in Australia – too many various night critters who could eat the hoard!). He also helps his 3 year old sister pick out her shoes. It is so sweet to hear him explaining the best pair of shoes to use!

I’m dreading ‘the talk’ and I know I will have some explaining to do later, but for now, we just enjoy! 🙂


6 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Beth, I love the story about the letter and how it turned into a regular tradition after that! LOL! That is what happened in our house a lot too – things that were created last minute to calm a worried child became a new tradition! But as you said, it becomes magical even more. It becomes our own personal family tradition (out of need) and thus becomes a most favored part of the season. The more personal the tradition, the better! I hope your Christmas was as lovely as ever and that “the talk” goes well when the time comes.


7 Barbara December 14, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Laughed a lot about your artiicle, Corey! We do a lot o similar things in our household. Nikolaus is defintely a must and the shoes/boots have to be cleaned/polished before being put out for him. The region I’m from in Germany uses both Christkind (catholic) and Weihnachtsmann (protestant), but we simplified the bilingual Christmas by leaving Christkind out of the equation. We do gifts on the 25th. After all Santa/Weihnachtsmann is busy bringing gifts on the 24th in Europe befor he can tend to the American children in the night. I always found that the 24th draws awfully long for children while waiting for the gifts in the evening. And it makes it more difficult to secretely put out gifts. Interestingly, it’s easier for the kids to wait to open the gifts in the morning of the 25th, even if it’s 12 hours later. It’s also nicer that the kids have all day to play with their new toys and don’t have to go to bed right after gift opening. In our family Santa only brings the gifts in the stockings, the gifts under trees are from people. This way we need less pretenses. My older daughter (7) has started questioning Santa, but can’t quite give up the idea. I haven’t really had the talk with her, rather let her figure it out herself.


8 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Lovely, Barbara! I think you are right on to let your daughter explore the whole “truth” about Santa on her own since she is already inquiring. Then she can kind of direct the whole thing. Of course, you’ll have to decide what you’ll do if she asks you straight whether Santa exists or not. I think most parents ask, “What do you think?” and that leads to a whole discussion. 😉

You know what is interesting? I learned that Luther (and Protestants) actually came up with the Christkind story (as an attempt to make Christmas more focused on the religious aspect of the holiday) but ironically it appears as if the Catholics adopted the tradition. I find this very fascinating! I haven’t verified this, but I have been told by many German family and friends that this is the case.

I do think that trying to figure out how to work Christkind, Weihnachtsmann and Santa all together would be tough. Course, I think just working out Christkind and Weihnachtsmann is tough. Making Weihnachtsmann and Santa the same or similar is a little easier, right?

Kudos to all of us families who somehow weave these lovely stories together for our bicultural children without losing our minds!

I hope your Christmas was lovely and magical and full of joy!


9 Susanne December 15, 2011 at 3:21 am

Our girls have gone beyond the time when Christmas is magical, but when they were little we had St Nikolaus on the 6th. Our eldest twigged relatively quickly that her little sisters’ shoes were very small and kindly substituted them with Daddy’s wellies! It was quite interesting to see how genuinely excited they were to find MORE satsumas, nuts and apples rolling out of them, they didn’t even notice that the number of tiny gifts stayed the same…

Then on Christmas Eve they had the German relatives’ presents, so they could open them at the same time as their cousins. As they were home when the postman brought them, they knew they had been posted and never queried why their cousins had been delivered by the Christkind and theirs by the Postman.

And on Christmas morning they found that the Weihnachtsmann had come overnight. They also had a homemade advent calendar (24 little cloth bags, big enough to hold pencils, erasers, chocolate coins etc) which magically appeared overnight on the first of December and they took turns at opening and giving each other the contents. The exception was the 17th which was a larger bag as this is our Eldest’s birthday and we’ve always had the tradition of the birthday child giving “unbirthday presents” to her siblings so they could share in the excitement. Add to that the stockings Grandma insisted on and I felt I spent more time wrapping tiny things than larger presents!
It will be interesting to see what they keep going when they have families of their own…


10 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this, Susanne! What lovely traditions in your home. I love the way you were able to weave everything together, including your eldest’s birthday on the 17th! Amazing! My birthday is on December 1st and often I received my birthday and Christmas gift from extended family all at the same time – this was a great disappointment to me when I was young. When I got older it was ok.

You are so right about seeing what will happen when our children have their own children and which traditions will continue with them. Because when it comes down to it, all of these traditions are really what WE want to keep alive – seeing our children celebrate them reminds us of our own childhood which is lovely!

I hope your Christmas was still magical even though your children are older. It just seems like such a magical time of year, no matter how old we are! 🙂


11 AmsterdaMummy December 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Oh wow, so many traditions. We’re english living in holland and as my daughter turned 4 and started school in september we have to celebrate Sinterklass on 5th too from now on. For some reason she and her two year old brother understand that Sint and Santa are two different people, they even notice that they look different, one has Zwarte Piet the other Elves… but this year as the 2yr old has started talking I decided to call Santa, Father Christmas – kids are great, they don’t care as long as there are gifts, be it nuts, fruit or toys… great post


12 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:42 pm

Isn’t that wonderful about children? As you say: in the end kids don’t usually care as long as the outcome is the same. I could imagine that bilingual children are more accepting of different names for the same thing.

That must have been fascinating to add Sinterklass on the 5th! My husband totally took the lead on that since I never grew up with that. I guess you consulted with a lot of families in Holland about the traditions? Being that children talk with one another, I’m sure you didn’t want their experience to be too different from other children in the neighborhood and at school. So funny to think about! Our traditions extend far beyond our homes… our whole community is involved!

I hope your Christmas was lovely, magical and as comforting in Holland as back home!


13 Kate November 25, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Thanks so much for writing this article, Corey! My son is now 3, and I’m struggling a bit to figure out how to blend our holiday traditions. We live in the US, so I grew up with Santa bringing presents on the night of the 24th. But now I raise my son (soon to be sons!) in English and German, so I’d like to incorporate Nikolaus on the 6th as well. But wait! there’s more! My husband is from the Netherlands, so we really should have Sinterklaas visit on the 5th, too! We thought this might all be a bit too much, but I love to hear from you and the other commenters how willing children are to believe in the magic of it all 🙂 I know I believed in Santa until the last possible moment – I was 10 when my dad sat me down to tell me the whole truth!
I also wanted to share a brilliant tradition my parents started for us: My brother & I each had a small fake tree in our bedrooms. So Santa would leave one or two gifts there as well. When we woke up in the morning, we could open those and play with our new treasure(s) until it was time to get up at a reasonable hour. Genius!


14 cartside December 10, 2012 at 1:24 pm

I still haven’t quite figured it out, my daughter will be six in May an the little one is 2. Santa is Santa, that’s fine, I come from a part of Germany where we have both Christkind and Weihnachtsmann and although I wanted to have the Christkind tradition in our family (I thought it was easier as there may not be any confusion), it didn’t quite take off. Nikolaus is fine, but because really Nikolaus and Santa are the same person, historically, I had toyed with the idea of explaining this. The problem was that the German playgroup’s Nikolaus doesn’t look a bit like Santa (different robe) so now we have, like you, Santa = Weihnachtsmann and Nikolaus as a different person. And I’m the one who’s confused, because that’s not what I grew up with! My older daughter did spot that Nikolaus was wearing trousers underneath and asked if he was just dressed up. Oops. I wonder how much longer we can keep the magic going!


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