Kaestner's 'Als der Nikolaus kam' ('The Night Before Christmas')

German Version of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Erich Kästner

In German, “Als der Nikolaus kam” is a translation of the famous English poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which is also known as "The Night Before Christmas."

It was translated into German in 1947 by the German author Erich Kästner. There is controversy over who wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" over a century earlier. Although Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863) is usually credited, there seems to be a lot of evidence that the original author was another New Yorker named Henry Livingston, Jr.

(1748-1828).

Compare this German version to the English version.

Als der Nikolaus kam

German by Erich Kästner (1947)

In der Nacht vor dem Christfest, da regte im Haus
sich niemand und nichts, nicht mal eine Maus.
Die Strümpfe, die hingen paarweis am Kamin
und warteten drauf, daß Sankt Niklas erschien.
Die Kinder lagen gekuschelt im Bett
und träumten vom Äpfel- und Nüsseballett.

Die Mutter schlief tief, und auch ich schlief brav,
wie die Murmeltiere im Winterschlaf,
als draußen vorm Hause ein Lärm losbrach,
daß ich aufsprang und dachte: Siehst rasch einmal nach!
Ich rannte zum Fenster und, fast noch im Lauf,
stieß ich die knarrenden Läden auf.

Es hatte geschneit, und der Mondschein lag
so silbern auf allem, als sei's heller Tag.
Acht winzige Renntierchen kamen gerannt,
vor einen ganz, ganz kleinen Schlitten gespannt!
Auf dem Bock saß ein Kutscher, so alt und so klein,
daß ich wußte, das kann nur der Nikolaus sein!



Die Renntiere kamen daher wie der Wind,
und der Alte, der pfiff, und er rief laut: "Geschwind!
Renn, Renner! Tanz, Tänzer! Flieg, fliegende Hitz'!
Hui, Sternschnupp'! Hui, Liebling! Hui, Donner und Blitz!
Die Veranda hinauf und die Hauswand hinan!
Immer fort mit euch! Fort mit euch! Hui, mein Gespann!"

Wie das Laub, das der Herbststurm die Straßen lang fegt
und, steht was im Weg, in den Himmel hoch trägt,
so trug es den Schlitten hin auf unser Haus
samt dem Spielzeug und samt dem Sankt Nikolaus!


Kaum war das geschehen, vernahm ich schon schwach
das Stampfen der zierlichen Hufe vom Dach.

Dann wollt' ich die Fensterläden zuzieh'n,
da plumpste der Nikolaus in den Kamin!
Sein Rock war aus Pelzwerk, vom Kopf bis zum Fuß.
Jetzt klebte er freilich voll Asche und Ruß.
Sein Bündel trug Nikolaus huckepack,
so wie die Hausierer bei uns ihren Sack.

Zwei Grübchen, wie lustig! Wie blitzte sein Blick!
Die Bäckchen zartrosa, die Nas' rot und dick!
Der Bart war schneeweiß, und der drollige Mund
sah aus wie gemalt, so klein und halbrund.
Im Munde, da qualmte ein Pfeifenkopf,
und der Rauch, der umwand wie ein Kranz seinen Schopf.
--- [Kästner apparently chose not... --
--- ...to translate these two lines.] --
Ich lachte hell, wie er so vor mir stand,
ein rundlicher Zwerg aus dem Elfenland.
Er schaute mich an und schnitt ein Gesicht,
als wollte er sagen: "Nun, fürchte dich nicht!"
Das Spielzeug stopfte er, eifrig und stumm,
in die Strümpfe, war fertig, drehte sich um,
hob den Finger zur Nase, nickte mir zu,
kroch in den Kamin und war fort im Nu!

In den Schlitten sprang er und pfiff dem Gespann,
da flogen sie schon über Täler und Tann.
Doch ich hört' ihn noch rufen, von fern klang es sacht:
"Frohe Weihnachten allen, - und allen gut' Nacht!" 

Authorship Controversy of "A Visit from St. Nicholas"

*This poem was first published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel (New York) in 1823. In 1837 Clement Clarke Moore claimed authorship. In a book of poems, Moore said that he wrote the poem on Christmas Eve in 1823. But Livingston's family claims that the poem was a family tradition that began in 1808. University professor Don Foster and British researcher Jil Farrington separately did research that may prove it was Livingston rather than Moore who was the poem's author.

The reindeer names "Donner" and "Blitzen" are also related to the Livingston claims. In the earliest versions of the poem, those two names were different. Note that Kästner alters the reindeer names and uses the more German "Donner und Blitz" for those two names.

Two Missing Lines

For some reason, Kästner's "Als der Nikolaus kam" is two lines shorter than the original "A Visit from St.

Nicholas." The English original has 56 lines, the German version only 54. Were the lines "He had a broad face and a little round belly/That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!" a problem to translate? Whatever the reason, Kästner did not include those two lines in his German version. 

Saint Nicholas in German-Speaking Countries

The customs revolving around St. Nicholas in German-speaking countries are very different from the visit portrayed in the poem. The whole scenario of St. Nicholas delivering gifts on the night before Christmas does not match with how they celebrate the holiday.

The feast day of St. Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus or der Heilige Nikolaus) is December 6, but the holiday traditions that developed have as little to do with the historical figure. St. Nicholas Day  (der Nikolaustag) on Dec. 6 is a preliminary round for Christmas in Austria, Catholic parts of Germany, and Switzerland. That is when der Heilige Nikolaus (or Pelznickel) brings his gifts for children, not the night of Dec. 24-25.

The tradition for the night of Dec. 5 or evening of Dec. 6 is for a man dressed as a bishop, carrying a staff to pose as der Heilige Nikolaus and go from house to house to bring small gifts to the children. He is accompanied by several ragged-looking, devil-like Krampusse, who mildly scare the children.

While this may still be done in some communities, in others they don't make a personal appearance. Instead, children leave their shoes by the window or door and awaken on Dec. 6 to find them filled with goodies by St. Nicholas. This is somewhat similar to leaving stockings hung on the chimney to be filled by Santa Claus.

Protestant reformer Martin Luther introduced das Christkindl (an angel-like Christ Child) to bring Christmas gifts and reduce the importance of Saint Nicholas. Later this Christkindl figure would evolve into der Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) in Protestant regions. Children may leave a wish list in their shoes on Dec. 5 for Nikolaus to pass on to the Weihnachtsmann for Christmas.

Christmas Eve is now the most important day of the German celebration. Family members exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. In most regions, the angelic Christkindl or the more secular Weihnachtsmann bring gifts that don't come from other family members or friends. Santa Claus and St. Nicholas are not involved.

Translator and Author Erich Kästner

Erich Kästner (1899-1974) was a popular author in the German-speaking world, but he is not very well known elsewhere. He is best known for his amusing works for children, although he wrote serious works as well.

His fame in the English-speaking world is due to two humorous tales that were turned into Disney films in the 1960s. These were Emil und die Detektive and Das doppelte Lottchen. Disney studios turned these two books into the films "Emil and the Detectives" (1964) and "The Parent Trap" (1961, 1998) respectively.

Erich Kästner was born in Dresden in 1899. He served in the military in 1917 and 1918. He began working at the Neue Leipziger Zeitung newspaper. By 1927 Kästner was a theater critic in Berlin, where he lived and worked until after World War II. In 1928 Kästner also wrote a parody of a traditional German Christmas carol ("Morgen, Kinder") from about 1850.

On May 10, 1933, the author watched his books burned by the Nazis in Berlin. All of the other authors whose books went up in flames that night had already left Germany far behind. Later, Kästner would be twice arrested and held by the Gestapo (in 1934 and 1937). It is uncertain whether he had any Jewish background or not.

After the war, he continued to publish works but never produced the great novel that he intended to write by staying in Germany during World War II. Kästner died at the age of 75 in his adopted city of Munich on July 29, 1974.