A German tradition
In Germany we have a range of traditions that seem weird to other countries. We use fireworks on New Year’s Eve to scare away the evil spirits of the old year. On Easter we burn stakes to drive out the winter demons. There are also dozens of local traditions in which people disguise themselves as witches, ghosts and demons for a variety of reasons. But few know the background of one of the strangest annual rituals we have.
The legend goes as follows: 1700 years ago a burglar broke into the house of a rich man. His attempt was interrupted by a guard. On his getaway he was badly injured and at the brink of death. At this point, his story would have ended and his name would have been long forgotten if it wasn’t for a demon to show up. The demon offered him a bet. If the man could break into 10 houses of the nearby village until sunrise, the demon would give him another year on earth. But if one of the inhabitants raises the alarm, the demon would throw his soul into hellfire. The man, fearing for his life, accepted the bet. His wounds were healed and he set off.
He found 9 houses whose inhabitants were not at home. But as the first sunrays already gleamed over the horizon, he panicked and entered the next house on his way. He was already on the way out when the daughter of the family living there appeared in front of him. The man did not hesitate and cut her throat. Her blood colored his coat red.
He returned to the demon to claim his prize.
But he should have known, that demons don’t play fair.
The blood of his innocent victim painting his clothes red until the end of time as a reminder of what he had done. And since the demon only gave him one additional year, the man is now doomed to gamble with the demon every year to save his soul from purgatory for another year.
Since then, he roams the earth.
As his story spread, people began to put their boots on the doorstep. They hoped that if the burglar knew that the inhabitants were at home, he would not enter their house. A pair of boots to keep the man out, who gambled with a demon for his soul.
Have you never heard of this man?
Times change and so do stories. Again and again over the centuries. In some versions of the story, he isn’t a burglar, but a saint, in others, he’s a warrior who fought a demon and won.
And with every change in the story, his name also changes. But don’t get fooled. Even with a different name, he still is willing to murder innocent people to remain unseen.
European emigrants took his story over the Atlantic.
In Germany he is known as St. Nikolaus.
In North America, he has a new name.