With the majority of the holiday stress safely behind me, I'm going to try and catch up on what feels like a million things! I know I can do it!
There are several 'holidays' and traditions during advent - there is, for example, Barbara da on December 4th. It is said that if you cut a branch of a cherry tree (or another tree, depending on the region you are in) on that day, and put it into a glass of water in a warm room, it will be in bloom by Christmas Day - in memory of the holy Barbara, who was beheaded and, on her way to the prison, accidently broke a branch, that bloomed in her prison on the day of her execution.
By far the most important of those holydays, however, is December 6th - St Nicholas Day. Nikolaos of Myra was a bishop who lived in the 4th centuary, in Myra, which lies in todays Turkey.There are several legends about his good deeds and miracle works, and most of them are about either secret gift giving (it is said that he liked to leave coints in boots that were left outside the door - sound familiar?) and helping children, whose patron he is as well.
So on the evening before his name day, on the 5th his name day, children will leave their boots or stockings out and find them filled on the next day - oranges, nuts, sweets and sometimes small toys for good children, a birch for bad children. Bad children used to actually get beaten with that birch, but nowadays they usually just get one instead of the sweets, as a reminder to behave better the next year. And sometimes there will even be sweets ON that birch (I got one of these once as a child!), so it's a really mild reminder too! Doesn't St Nicholas sound like the original Santa Claus? :D
Now, there are several variantions in these tradition, of course. For example, where I live, the stockings aren't filled over night for most children, but the bell will suddenly ring on the evening of the 5th and the will already find their presents then.Sometimes, St Nicholas will even visit himself instead of just filling the stockings: Many schools and kindergardens have one coming by. And there are differences as well: While some will depict him like a modern day Santa Claus, in red and white, the original St Nicholas is actually dressed like the bishop he was, with a bishop's cap and crooked staff. When St Nicholas appears in person, children will often have to recite poems to him in exchange for their presents.
Also depending on the region, St Nicholas might have different companions. Those companions are usually seen as his 'bad' counterpart - while St Nicholas is sent from heaven to reward the good children, his companions are inpersonations of the devil, that come to scare bad children and also took care of the birching when that was still custom.
In Germany, or at least where I live, Nikolaus is usually accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, an old, bearded guy clad in a brown or black robe, who carries both the birches and the presents in a basket on his back (unless he and Nikolaus have a donkey to do the carrying for them). He's not necessarily evil, more like a loyal companion to do the less pleasurable parts of the job. As far as I understand, the same can be said for Zwarte Piet (black Peter), that accompanies the Sinterclaas in the Netherlands and Belgium. In Austria and some of the Eastern European countries, how ever, the Nikolaus is accompanied by the Krampus - a demon like creature, barely tamed by the good bishop and put in chains, that he rattles to scare the bad children. Stuff for nightmares right there!