Johann Baptist Laule

St. Nicholas’ Day in the Black Forest, 1858

About the object

On the 5th of December, the eve of Nicholas, three generations gather for the feast: the mother looks favourably at her child, the grandfather is playing on a terete, while the grandmother wants to play a trick on her grandson. The father of the child appears in the doorway.
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St. Nicholas’ Day is an important part of the Advent season in Germany. The day is associated with the veneration of St. Nicholas of Myra, a bishop who lived in Byzantium in the 3rd and 4th centuries. St. Nicholas is said to have done many good deeds, including throwing three golden balls through a window to three poor virgins one night so that their father would not force them into prostitution. This story is the origin of the tradition still practiced on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day, when children place their shoes outside the door and find them filled with sweets the next morning. This painting by Johann Baptist Laule shows St. Nicholas’ Eve, the fifth of December. Three generations of a family are gathered in the cozy sitting room of a farmhouse; the grandfather on the left blows happily into a small horn, while the grandmother is seated to the right in the traditional costume of a woman from the Elz valley. In the middle stands the mother; she smiles at her son who is already dressed in his nightshirt, and both he and the small dog reach excitedly for the horn. In the left background we see a tiled stove, and on the right another person—probably the child’s father— enters through an open door. The shield clock to the right of the door shows the time: 11:35 p.m. The decorated stick on the right identifies the festive occasion. Two golden apples hang from it and a third lies on the table, a reference to the legend of the three virgins. The switch in the grandmother’s hand likewise invokes tradition: St. Nicholas, who always appears as a generous gift-giver, is usually accompanied by his servant Ruprecht, who carries a switch to punish naughty children. The grandmother raises the switch as if to strike the boy, while reaching for his nightshirt tail with her other hand. Her mischievous facial expression, however, suggests that her threat is all in jest rather than meant as a serious punishment. MIRJA STRAUB (Transl. MELISSA THORSON)

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