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Visiting St. Nikolaus in the Prättigau Valley
Does the Samichlaus really exist?

Only the little ones believe in the fairy tale about St. Nikolaus* living in a cabin somewhere out in the woods. That's what you would think, right?

Quite recently tough, to my big surprise, I found out better!

I was trying to find a subject for a very special photograph when I got lost deep in the dark woods above Schiers. Suddenly I stood in front of a small cabin. Smoke was rising from the chimney, so I decided to knock and ask for the way.

St. Nikolaus All good and naughty deeds are recorded in his book.

And now I am sitting at a table, flabbergasted and in disbelief, across from an old man with a long, white beard, bushy eyebrows and a green jelly bag cap. He confirms again, what he said when he first opened the door for me: "I am St. Nikolaus, the Cavadürli-Samichlaus*, to be precise."

The only indication that he really is the St. Nikolaus is his beautiful, curly white beard. Neither his blue Helly Hansen jacket nor his trousers made from "Bündner cloth", nor the worn slippers appear to me to be typical for the Samichlaus. Nowhere in the small, humbly furnished cabin can I see a red velvet coat with a fluffy white collar. "My sister Anna has washed it too hot," he explains, "so this year my black everyday coat will have to be good enough." And anyhow, he could not work in this festive coat; he prefers simple and practical things.

St. Nikolaus abode The Samichlaus lives, eats, and sleeps in the same room.

This he says and bends over the big, fat book on the table in front of him, turns a page and starts to write with a freshly sharpened pencil. "My memory is not what it used to be. Nowadays I have to write down everything," he says, "so that I know what to say to the families on December 6th, the good things, and also the not so good ones."

Cup without a handle

With thanks, I accept the linden blossom tea he offers me a bit later. He picks up his big cup dipping his thumb into the hot tea and burning it a bit. It was his last cup with a handle, but yesterday it broke off. "I am a bit clumsy at my age of more than 80, so things break once in a while."

St. Nikolaus and his afternoon tea Without a handle, his thumb suffers.

A lively fire is crackling in the small wood stove, giving off pleasant warmth. Barley soup is bubbling in a pan on the wood stove, with two fine Prättigau sausages in it. "My favourite food, not much work, but very nourishing," he says and invites me to stay for lunch.

St. Nikolaus and his afternoon tea Crackling fire and steaming barley soup

Never before in my life did I taste such delicious barley soup. And the "fux"" (end and beginning of a loaf of bread) he leaves to me. "My teeth are not that strong anymore, so I usually give the "fux" to the squirrels," he says, gets up, and starts to do the dishes in a small round plastic bowl.

St. Nikolaus having his lunch The Samichlaus likes his barley soup.

Bath without running water

There is no running water in the Cavadürli; therefore he has to fetch it in a bucket from a brook close by. Of course, I would like to find out where his bathroom is. "Bathroom?" he laughs heartily and opens a narrow door. "This is my privy," he explains, "and my sink is another plastic bowl."

His simple privy No flushing toilet for the Swiss Santa - A simple outhouse is all he needs.

I take a shower every two weeks when I deliver my laundry to my sister Anna." This, he thinks, is the reason that it is very hard to find a successor for the Cavadürli-Samichlaus. "The young fellows are not ready to live and work up here in the woods under these conditions even though I do have a new-fangled achievement like a telephone, connecting me to my collegues all over the Prättigau Valley." Sure enough, I can see an enormous phone standing on the table, an army relic, operated with a crank and batteries. "Mobile reception? No I don't have that up here."

His simple privy Telephone and reading material next to the sleeping couch.

He grabs a pair of "Rohrholtschen" (leather boots with wooden soles) and steps outside. "Shoe-cleaning is not my favourite job, but wet feet are not good for me," the Samichlaus says, brushing off the dirt from his special wood-soled boots and then rubbing the leather part thoroughly with bee's wax.

Santa duties St. Nikolaus in front of his cabin cleaning his boots.

Later he tells me, over a cup of coffee, about his profession, which has always brought him so much joy. "The shining eyes of the children, when they realize that I am not a scary man, as they feared, the nice rhymes they recite for me, and their imaginative drawings they make for me, all these things make it worth it to carry on for a few more years."

I would have had many more questions, but St. Nikolaus said that he had to go back to his big register book, as there was little time left until December 6. He did show me the way out of the woods. Otherwise, I would not have been able to tell you about the life of the Cavadürli-Samichlaus.

*Samichlaus is Swiss German for St. Nikolaus or Saint Nicholas. Cavadürli is a remote area in the Prättigau Valley.

Text and photos by Marietta Kobald

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