Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther’

Don’t Forget St. Nikolaus Day – December 6!

Monday, December 4th, 2017


Don’t forget to polish your shoe today. When I was a child I was so keyed up that I could barely sleep during the night of December 5 to December 6. Why? Because I was awaiting St. Nikolaus (St. Nick). By then, I had completed my tasks: I had buffed my boot until it glistened in the soft ceiling light and placed it beside the bedroom door. (Just one boot – I didn’t want to appear greedy.) I also had carefully penned my wish list and tugged it into the empty boot for St. Nikolaus to pass along to the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas). Sometime during the night, when I was asleep, St. Nick would come, take the wish list and fill the boot.

In the morning of December 6, I found out whether St. Nikolaus had left small treats in my boot – chocolate, fruit, nuts, tiny toys – or whether he had left me a switch. He left treats for good little girls and switches for naughty ones. The big question always, “How much did St. Nick know?”

St. Nikolaus didn't forget! Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

St. Nikolaus didn’t forget! Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

Legend Surrounding St. Nikolaus

St. Nikolaus lived in the 4th century in Myra, today’s Turkey, and performed many miracles. He was a pious priest who cared for the poor and was known for his kindness and generosity. Worship of St. Nikolaus began in the Greek church in the 6th century. Two hundred years later, it spread to central and southern Europe.

St. Nikolaus is not Santa Claus

Though they often wear similar garments, St. Nikolaus is not Santa Claus. The latter is called Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) in Germany. When Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, wanted to reduce the importance of both – St. Nikolaus and the Weihachtsmann as gift bringers – he replaced them with the Christkindl (Christ Child). The custom of the Christkindl bringing the gifts is more rooted in the Catholic south of Germany than in the north. To this day, you will find gift bringers with many different names across the German-speaking region of Europe. But despite their different names, they all resemble more or less the same folkloric characters.

Does Nikolaus come again on Christmas Eve?

No, it is the Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus) who comes on Christmas Eve, and he comes in the afternoon, not the evening. German children do not have to wait until Christmas morning to open and play with their gifts. In many families, Santa comes in person, asks the child to recite a poem and then bestows his gifts.

(I still check my boot every December 6 morn. Although poor old St. Nick did manage to misplace my address a couple of times over the years, his memory is still pretty good.)


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

500th Anniversary Martin Luther’s Theses

Monday, February 27th, 2017


On 31 October 2017, Protestants throughout the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the day on which Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was a German monk and professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg who became disillusioned with certain abuses practiced by the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s Theses eventually sparked the Protestant Reformation. Twelve years after he is said to have nailed the Theses to the church door, the word “Protestant” became a term that described those who protested against the Catholic Church.

Why Martin Luther’s Theses?

In 1510 Luther visited Rome and was disgusted by the practices of church officials, and in particular, by their sale of indulgences. Indulgences were certificates that could be purchased to reduce the punishment for sins committed by the purchasers or their loved ones in purgatory. Martin Luther argued the church practice lead people to think that they could forgo repentance by purchasing indulgences.


Martin Luther depicted as nailing his 95 Thesis to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Martin Luther depicted as nailing his 95 Thesis to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.


 In 1515, Pope Leo X granted indulgences to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These certificates, in particular, could be purchased to reduce the punishment for almost any sin, including adultery and theft. With his 95 Theses Luther intended to express his disillusionment over this corruption. His Theses called for a reform of the Catholic Church and challenged other scholars to debate church policy. The indulgence controversy set off by the Martin Luther’s Theses was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which set into motion lasting social and political change in Europe.

How did Word of the 95 Theses Spread?

On 31 October 1517, Luther sent a letter to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, because it was under the archbishop’s authority that indulgences were sold. Whether Luther also posted the Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church and on other churches in Wittenberg is not clear. In any case, Martin Luther’s Theses were quickly reprinted, translated, and distributed throughout Germany and Europe. Although Luther wrote the Theses to be argued in an academic disputation (a formalized method of debate), there is no evidence that such a debate ever took place. No copies of a Wittenberg printing of the 95 Theses have ever been discovered.

Is the nailing of Martin Luther’s Theses a myth?

Today, the majority of researchers agree that Luther mailed the Thesis to the archbishop on 31 October 1517, but they question that he nailed them to the door of All Saint’s. In the early 1960s, researchers began to doubt the latter because the first written account of the event comes from Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s colleague and close friend. Erwin Iserloh, a catholic Luther researcher, suggests that the nailing could not have taking place because Philip Melanchthon did not arrive in Wittenberg until 1518 and therefore could not have been an eyewitness to the event. Besides, Melanchthon never mentioned the nailing until after Luther’s death. Although announcements were routinely hung on the door of All Saints’, the nailing of the 95 theses prior to hearing back from the archbishop seems unlikely.

Walk in Martin Luther’s Footsteps

The German tourism industry has geared up to help visitors discover the history of Reformation. Visitors are encouraged to follow Luther’s footsteps on the 745-mile Luther Trail or to discover his life and legacy on numerous mini-tours across Germany. Tours by train, bus and foot are available to fit every budget. The most prominent Luther sites are Wittenberg, Eisleben and Eisenach. Other cities and towns associated with Martin Luther are Allstedt, Altenburg, Augsburg, Bad Frankenhausen, Bad Hersfeld, Bad Neustadt, Bretten, Coburg, Dresden, Eilenburg, Erfurt, Gotha, Grimma, Halle, Heidelberg, Jena, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Mansfeld, Marburg, Moehra, Muellhausen, Naumburg, Nuremberg, Oppenheim, Pirna, Schmalkalden, Sonneberg, Speyer, Torgau, Weimar, Worms and Zeitz. For more information, visit


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of


St. Thomas Boys Choir – 800 years

Monday, June 29th, 2015

The  world-famous St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig, Germany, is first mentioned in 1254. But most likely, the choir is as old church itself. The St. Thomas Church came into being in 1212 when Margrave Dietrich of Meissen founded an Augustinian Monastery on this spot. Toward the end of the 15th century, the church’s Romanesque nave was razed and replaced by the late-Gothic “Hall-Church” that we see today. In fact, the architecture of today’s church has not changed much since the end of the 15th century.

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig Photo © J. Elke Ertle

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig
Photo © J. Elke Ertle

Choir Director Johann Sebastian Bach

From 1723 to 1750, the renowned composer and musician of the Baroque period, Johann Sebastian Bach, led the St. Thomas Boys Choir. At that time, the chorus consisted of 54 boys. Today, about 100 boys and young men sing in the choir. Their primary focus is the preservation of Bach’s choral music. For that reason, weekly Friday and Saturday motets have become a permanent musical tradition at St. Thomas. Bach Passion Concerts and the Christmas Oratorio draw thousands of visitors each year. The present leader of the choir is, Georg Christoph Biller, the church’s 36th cantor.

During a recent visit, I was able to enjoy a Friday motet with the St. Thomas Boys Choir. The church was packed, and we were not disappointed. Music and setting succeeded in linking us emotionally to a long-forgotten time period.

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach in front of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig Photo © J. Elke Ertle

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach in front of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig
Photo © J. Elke Ertle

The Bach Organ

The organ from Bach’s days no longer exists. In 2000, for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, St. Thomas acquired a new organ. This new instrument, with its 61 registers and 4 manuals with pedal, looks and sounds similar to an organ of the 18th century.

Historic events at St. Thomas

The Lutheran St. Thomas Church has a long and eventful history. Not only has the St. Thomas Boys Choir sung here for the last 800 years. Many other important events took place in this church as well: In 1409, the University of Leipzig was founded in the monastery. In 1539, Martin Luther preached at St. Thomas, introducing the Reformation to Leipzig’s citizens. From 1723 until his death, Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor of the Thomas school. In 1789 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played the organ here. Mendelssohn performed at St. Thomas, and in 1813 Richard Wagner was baptized here. Since 1950 the St. Thomas Church is the location of Johann Sebastian Bach’s remains. Originally buried in an unmarked grave outside the Johanniskirche in Leipzig, Bach was moved to his final resting place at the foot of the church’s altar.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

A Man Called Martin Luther

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Martin Luther, German monk, Catholic priest, and professor of theology was born in 1483 and died in 1546. By questioning some of the basic tenets of the Roman Catholic Church he laid the groundwork for becoming one of the most influential figures in the Protestant Reformation movement.

Martin Luther – early years

Martin Luther was born in the town of Eisleben in southeast Germany, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time. He initially entered the University of Erfurt to pursue a legal career. But at age 22 he had a life-changing experience that set him on a different course. One day, he was caught in a horrendous thunderstorm. A lightening bolt struck near him. Luther cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” He was spared and took his promise seriously. He left law school and entered a friary in Erfurt. In 1507, he was ordained to the priesthood, became the dean of the newly founded University of Wittenberg one year later, and was awarded his Doctor of Theology in 1512.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Martin Luther – his 95 theses

When a papal representative was sent to Germany in 1516 to sell indulgences to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Luther vehemently objected. Indulgences were grants for good works. They were given by the pope. They could also be purchased by donating money to the church and then be used to temporarily relieve punishment for minor sins. Luther felt this practice was wrong and protested by nailing a sheet of paper on the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. The paper contained 95 Theses. Thanks to the newly invented printing press, his theses spread throughout Germany and Europe within weeks and sparked the Reformation. Throughout 2017, Germany celebrates the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s life and theses.

Martin Luther – later life

When Martin Luther refused to retract his theses, the Catholic Church excommunicated him in 1921. At age 41, he married the 26-year-old former nun, Katharina von Bora. He devoted his life to organizing the new church. He wrote a German Mass, developed the catechism as a teaching method, translated the New and the Old Testament into German, and wrote numerous hymns. His hymn Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come), based on Luke 2:11-12, is still sung every Christmas season. In his later years, Luther grew increasingly bitter toward several segments of society, particularly Jews and Muslims. According to the prevailing view among historians, the Nazis later incorporated his anti-Jewish rhetoric. He died at the age of 62.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


Christmas Tree tradition is German

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Did you know that our Christmas tree tradition is German? The pagan custom dates back to the days before Christianity. As early as in the 16th century, people in Germany are said to have brought decorated trees into their homes. The Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, is credited with having added lighted candles. German immigrants eventually brought their tradition to the U.S. where the first recorded Christmas tree was displayed in Pennsylvania in the 1830s. But because of its pagan origin, most Americans did not adopt the tradition until the 20th century.

Beginning of the Tradition in Europe

Long before Christianity, plants and trees that stayed green all year had special meaning Europeans. People believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick. When plants greened again in spring and summer, they thought the sun god had recovered. To keep him healthy though out the year, people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. Others built pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens.

Puritans rally against the Christmas tree

New England’s Puritans tried hard to eradicate the old pagan tradition of decorating trees. Throughout the 18th century, they forbade any Christmas tradition that wasn’t a church service. But by the 19th century, the influx of German and Irish immigrants had weakened their efforts.

The Christmas Tree during Queen Victoria

In 1846, Queen Victoria of England, her German Prince, Albert, and their family were sketched in a London journal standing around a Christmas tree. Since the queen was immensely popular, Britain’s subjects as well as America’s East Coast Society imitated the custom.

The Christmas Tree Tradition came from Germany

Our Christmas Tree Tradition came from Germany


The American Christmas Tree Tradition

In the early 20th century, German-Americans continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies to decorate their trees. Americans used homemade ornaments. Soon popcorn, interlaced with berries and nuts, became fashionable. And after then arrival of electricity, lit Christmas trees appeared in town squares across the country. Today, the German Christmas Tree tradition has become an American tradition as well.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.