Before Roberts Cove began throwing its annual Germanfest in 1995, the St. Nicholas celebration each Dec. 6 was its most publicized tradition and is one that is still held dear in the community. It is one of the ways that Roberts Cove has held on to its German traditions and culture..
The Roberts Cove celebration begins on the evening of St. Nicholas Eve, when St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and a choir travel through the community entertaining children and grownups alike.
Anthropologist Rocky Sexton did a study on the holiday some years ago, and found that the celebration today is quite different from when it began.
In a 1998 article in Southern Folklore, he writes, "On the surface, St. Nicholas seems to be a traditional German practice that was brought to Louisiana by the Roberts Cove founders and which has survived with slight modification into the present. However, comments from older Roberts Cove residents indicate that the celebration differs considerably from that of 50 years ago."
Indeed, he says, today's is a much kinder, gentler celebration. Some old accounts make one think more of a rowdy Mardi Gras run than of a visit by a man who was supposed to be a charitable bishop.
"The rowdy and frightening elements of the early Roberts Cove custom are similar [customs] once found in various portions of western Europe," Sexton notes. "A description from Holland notes that the 'St. Nicholas rounds' unfolded in a rollicking, drunken manner and consisted of 'local youths' with a leader representing St. Nicholas who traveled the streets after dark making noise with chains, bells, buckets, and horns."
He notes that many Roberts Cove settlers came from a region of Germany bordering Holland where rowdy celebrations were held, "so it is not surprising that a variation of this general tradition diffused to Louisiana."
But the St. Nicholas tradition had some differences in Roberts Cove. For example, Santa Claus suits became the favorite costume for the touring youths in Roberts Cove.
"This is not surprising considering that the St. Nicholas celebration began to be celebrated in Louisiana at a time when Santa Claus, portrayed in much the same manner as the contemporary bearded, redsuited character, was becoming a popular culture icon in American society," Sexton writes "This was, however, a superficial change because rather than behaving like the benevolent American Santa Claus, Roberts Cove youth continued to act out the intimidating role of St. Nicholas rooted in the earlier St. Nicholas rounds."
The celebration in Roberts Cove began to change in the 1950s, when the local priest protested that St. Nicholas was kind and gentle and that the rowdy celebration gave a wrong portrayal. He urged replacement of the rowdy Santa Claus characters with St. Nicholas and his entourage.
Not long after the new St. Nicholas was introduced, the community began a cultural renaissance that revived or introduced practices associated with German culture in community events, especially those organized with the cooperation of St. Leo's Catholic church, long a bastion of German cultural practices, according to Sexton. This is when the church choir began to accompany the St. Nicholas procession and sing Christmas songs in German.
"The various features of St. Nicholas' 'Germanization' represent a meaningful synthesis of old, new, and modified elements.," Sexton writes. "This balance between stability and change, between the enduring and the novel has resulted in what is in many respects a uniquely Louisiana German custom."
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P,.O, Box 1121, Washington LA 70589