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Legend of St. Nikolaus

Caption: St. Nikolaus as portrayed by Michael Gene Krause at the Sophienburg Museum 2009.

Caption: St. Nikolaus as portrayed by Michael Gene Krause at the Sophienburg Museum 2009.

By Tara V. Kohlenberg

St. Nikolaus is thought to be the forerunner of our modern Santa Claus. Like other old legends, there are many variations of the St. Nikolaus story. He was from Turkey and in the 4th century entered the seminary. He soon became the Bishop of Myra, Asia Minor, and won many converts. Because of his popularity, the Romans imprisoned him. Finally, the new emperor, Constantine, released him from prison and even made him a church council member. He was known for selling off his own items and then giving the money to the poor. He would commonly leave coins in peoples’ shoes and dedicated his entire life to serving people who were sick and suffering. This is how he gained his saint status, and is what inspired St. Nikolaus Day celebrated on December 6.

One well-known story of St. Nikolaus involves a dowry for a father’s three daughters. In the third century, it was common for fathers to offer money to prospective husbands. However, one poor father with three daughters did not have money to do this. St. Nikolaus paid for all three daughters’ dowries by leaving gold in their shoes.

St. Nikolaus Day was celebrated in different ways. In Italy, this day was celebrated with feasts, gift-giving, and festivals. In Germany and the Netherlands, children would leave their shoes in front of the fireplace or front door the night of the 5th and find presents in them in the morning. Because of Nikolaus’ generosity, he became the patron saint of children in several countries.

During the Protestant Reformation, St. Nikolaus was banished from most European countries. The Dutch made him the protector of sailors and began the tradition of children filling wooden shoes with treats. Americans went from wooden shoes to leather shoes to long socks, even stretchable panty hose. In American New England, where the Dutch settled, they spelled St. Nikolaus “Sint Nikolass” which, with time, became “Sinterklass” and finally Santa Claus.

Clement Moore wrote the poem, “The Night Before Christmas” and he described St. Nikolaus as a little man in a red robe with a belly that “shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.” This description contradicted the vision of a tall, stately man in a red Bishop’s robe trimmed in fur with a long white beard as described before. It also smashed St. Nikolaus into Christmas Eve and away from his saint day.

Then cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a picture of what he thought Santa looked like for Harper’s Weekly in 1881. Nast’s picture definitely put on weight. He looked like the Santa of today. As with the Christmas tree, St. Nikolaus was brought to Texas by German immigrants. For the last fifteen years, our St. Nick at the Sophienburg has been a combination of several versions from those stories. He wore a hooded red robe trimmed with animal fur and had a long beard. Nikolaus speaks only German and hollers out to the children, “Kannst du beten?” or “Can you pray”? and without even understanding what he said, the wide-eyed children say, “Yes, I can pray”.

The Sophienburg Museum & Archives has hosted St. Nikolaus for forty-plus years, with several versions of the Saint. We wish to pay tribute to one of them — the quiet, unassuming man who brought life to St. Nikolaus here for the past fifteen years, Michael Gene Krause.

Michael was born in New Braunfels, Texas, and raised on the family ranch about 15 miles outside of town. A descendant of several German families who helped found New Braunfels, he learned to speak German first and learned English in elementary school. He grew up on the ranch as an only child and only grandchild on both family sides. He was an inquisitive child and as a teen became interested in herpetology. He actually had a functioning snake stick. Michael chose to wear a white shirt and tie every day of high school to honor his father who was in a management position at City Public Service in San Antonio. His father held a BS in Mechanical Engineering from UT-Austin and was involved with the planning of the South Texas Nuclear Plants.

Michael was a 1974 graduate of Canyon High School. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering with specializations in Nuclear and Heat Transfer from the University of Texas at Austin — with highest honors. Michael finished his Masters of Science in Mechanical Engineering with the same nuclear specialization at UT in 1984 and then went on to work for 36 years at the University of Texas at Austin at the UT TRIGA Nuclear Research Reactor. Michael was very good at his job managing and maintenance of the UT TRIGA Nuclear Reactor. He often gave training demonstrations and lectures to nuclear operators in other countries, including Egypt, Malaysia, Morocco, Thailand, and Algeria. During his work at UT, and after retirement from there, he continued operation of the family ranch, eventually becoming its owner.

Michael and his wife Connie, were active in New Braunfels’ historical community. He was a member of several local organizations including the Sophienburg Museum and Archives, the Comal County Genealogy Society, the German-American Society, the New Braunfels Conservation Society, and the German-Texan Heritage Society where Michael was president for several years. Michael was also well-known in helping folks locate ancestors’ graves using divining rods. He was a member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas and along with his appearances as a German-Texan Saint Nikolaus at the Sophienburg, he played the part for many other Central Texas groups since 1995. Michael Krause passed away in July after a short illness, leaving his wife Connie and many, many friends to miss his sense of humor and wry smile.

St. Nikolaus will be at the Sophienburg Museum & Archives again on Sunday, Dec. 5. Call the museum to RSVP for either the 5pm or 6:30pm session. $5 per family.

Sources: Around the Sophienburg, Myra Lee Goff; Michael Gene Krause by Connie Krause; Sophienburg Museum personal recollection.