Friday, December 9, 2011

Bad Santa & Cut Out Cookies

The Story: Bad Santa, Weinachten (Christmas) in Bavaria, Germany ~1930
If you think a lump of coal is bad, try drowning in a river …

In America, St. Nick is portrayed as a jolly fellow — a rosy-cheeked grandfather who can shake his belly like a bowl full of jelly.  But in Bavaria, Nikolaus is a little, well stern.  His red suit is a bit more formal and I doubt his beard is full of cookie crumbs — definitely the German Felix to the American Oscar. 

And, instead of traveling with eight tiny reindeer on Dec. 25, Nikolaus takes to the streets the first week of the month accompanied by Pelznickel — who is anything but endearing. Let’s put it this way, Pelznickel eats the claymation villains from American Christmas specials for breakfast. 

On Sankt Nikolaus Tag (December 6), Nikolaus brings the good boys and girls gifts. And the bad children ... get thrown in a sack and drowned in the river by Pelznickel.  

A lump of coal doesn’t seem so bad now, does it? 

I haven’t had family in Germany for years, so after some googling I don’t think Pelznickel is as popular anymore, and some versions now depict him as a giant alien-like rabbit.  One site suggested this is more like how he was described during pagan times.  Any way you slice it, he is just horrifying.

This is an image of Pelznickel, or Nikolaus in furs, I found online.  He and Sankt Nikolaus are the dynamic duo on Saint Nikolaus Day in Germany that reward good children and drown the bad.

Well, Oma had an encounter with Pelznickel when she was about five, more accurately, her brother Albert did.  

“Albert was such a rascal at that age,” Oma said with a laugh about her 10-year-old brother. “But, actually all the time.”

Albert’s rap sheet included being hit by nearly every mode of transportation, crafting a tomahawk and throwing it at my grandma’s forehead (you can still feel the indent 80 some years later) and letting Oma loose on an ice flow!

Obviously, Albert was on the naughty list.

Oma, was a sweet child, then called Lottie, who received an apple and some nuts that morning from Sankt Nikolaus. Albert, did not.

(Please read the following in a sweet, elderly Bavarian accent, there are no “th” sounds and the “w’s” are “v’s.”)

She said she remembers Pelznickel coming up the stairs and into her house.  The best part of hearing this story for the thousandth time, is how my Oma still tells it to me like I am eight.  She describes the scary Pelznickel, or Nikolaus in furs, wearing “inside out lambskin” and threatening to throw Albert in the Lech River! 

This is the point where she reminds me, in case the story is too scary, that the Jolly Santa is the only real one. 

“[Pelznickel] really doesn’t exist, you know,” she says comforting me.
Well, Lottie began to cry at the prospect of her brother drowning. And, her mother asked the scary Santa to leave.  Albert was given a warning that he wouldn’t be so lucky next year. 

Little-girl Oma and Albert shared a moment of relief.  He could see that Lottie was still shaken. He comforted his baby sister, telling her he had a plan all along.  He pulled a small knife from his pocket and said if Pelznickel had put him in the sack, he would have slit his way out. I am fuzzy on the details on whether he intended to slit the Pelznickel as well.

Oma carried on many traditions of Weinacthten with my mother, and then me.  But, Pelznickel was not one of them.

My father was not as lucky with his German grandparents. 

My dad grew up in the Ninth Ward, and so did his father and grandfather; before that, his family was in northern Germany. What many people don’t know about the Ninth Ward is that it was once a cluster of immigrant boroughs, so the German traditions stuck. 

Long story short, my dad’s grandfather would dress as Nikolaus and hit the children with a yellow stick.

I asked my dad if his pappy was supposed to be Pelznickel, and my dad answered laughing that he didn’t know his grandfather was supposed to be. He only remembers a scary red suit and possibly a mask. 

But German Christmas isn’t always stern or scary.  In fact, celebrating German Christmas Eve with Christkind, the Bavarian jolly gift-giver, was the most magical part of my childhood.  And, that is my story for next time …

The Sweets: Christmas Cut-Out Cookies
These treats are not a German recipe. In fact, when I went to Germany a couple of years ago, I don’t think I saw one cookie. They are all about cakes there, and I promise I will share some Bavarian cake recipes one day.   But, these cookies mean German Christmas to me, because I baked them with my Oma every year. 

Cut-Out Cookie Station at Oma's house!
This recipe was first introduced to my family in the ‘60s when my mom discovered it as a pre-teen.  So, think of it as retro Americana.

1 cup of oleo or butter (Trust me, Oma uses butter)
3 eggs
1 cup of sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla

3 ½ cups flour
2 tsp. cream tartar
1 tsp. soda

Refrigerate 1 hour, it helps with texture.
Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown for 7 - 10 minutes. 

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