On the 6th of December we celebrate the festival of St Niklaus – the Greek bishop, a generous and benevolent man whose deeds and legacy inspired the creation of father Christmas. On this day Grittibänz are eaten, small men shaped from sweet dough, and if you like sprinkled with sugar and traditionally the table is decorated with nuts and the first clementines and mandarins of the year are eaten.The day in Basel is called Niggi Näggi. No morning office coffee break on the 6th December would be complete without a Grittibänz.
This too is the day Father Christmas and his faithful helper Schmutzli come to visit children everywhere (Schmutz is dirt, and li = small, Schmutzli means slightly grubby but in this case is the name of the helper). The city is full of Schmutzlis and Father Christmases, modern types on Harleys and the old-fashioned ones leading donkeys, both of them carrying bags filled with gifts of nuts, tangerines and chocolates, that they hand out to little children in the streets. Thankfully general paranoia about strange men dressed up as father Christmas and handing out sweets to small children hasn’t arrived here yet. We are quite blessed still in this regard. Schmutzlis and Father Christmases can also be commissioned to come to your home and help you with your parenting. Children are told that if they have been REALLY naughty, father Christmas and Schmutzli, who is grubby from shoveling coal, will know and as punishment Schmutzli will put them in his big sack and take them back to the black forest when he and Father Christmas go back home. Father Christmas asks the children if they have been good this year. He then shares with them the things he has “seen” that they have done really well, and areas for improvement reading from lists helpfully provided by hopeful parents. Father Christmas reading from his list usually says harmless things such as “Benjamin, you need to tidy up your room more, and switch off the computer at 9pm and you should be nice to your little sister” or “Susan, you need to help your dad when he is fixing your bike, and help your younger brother more with his maths homework”. The children will then recite a poem they have learned off by heart for the occasion or sing. It is a fun. often very touching and lighthearted event, watching the little ones who are a bit scared, and a bit excited sing a song for Father Christmas and shyly receive a pre-christmas gift is a simple joy. Traditionally it is a s simple celebration and I have always loved it.
I did see a less light-hearted adaptation of this tradition one year, when people move to different countries they adopt local tradition and in making them their own, sometimes the traditions are adopted and undergo a transformation. I remember one, from my perspective, unfortunate year my heart went out to a mortified American teenage girl, whose parents had apparently really entered into the spirit of the thing and had provided father Christmas with a document resembling a full adult professional end-year review complete with development goals. Which reminded me of an end-year performance review. The girl was to work on having more confidence and not on being so painfully shy anymore…. According to father Christmas she should have more confidence and milestones were set. And all this in front of a group of peers and smaller kids and families and strangers like me. That was the only time I wanted to jump in and protect someone from the tradition, as said, it is meant to be fun with some playful chiding but overall fun and kind.
A Grittibänz recipe (makes 4)
500g white flour, 30g fresh yeast, 1/4 l warm milk, 50g butter, 50g sugar, 1 large egg. 1 pinch salt. Grated rind of 1/2 a lemon. 1 egg yolk.
Put flour in a bowl, mix yeast with warm milk and then mix into the flour. Melt the butter, don’t overheat or you will inactivate the yeast, add in the sugar, the egg, the salt and the lemon rind and mix into the flour, knead until you have a nice smooth dough about 10 minutes. Leave the dough to rise for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Form small men/ or of course women from the dough. Image below from Wikimedia. You can be as creative as you like!
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes on the second bottom level of your oven. Sprinkle with sugar if you like.
Recipe courtesy of Backvergnügen wie noch nie, GU Bild und Backbuch. If your german is any good then this is a great book to own.