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Sinter, Santa, Saint! The Man in Red

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Hans Dickert sits down with Elizabeth Kerr as he gets ready to share some old-school St Nick love with DB kids

PHOTOS BY Richard Gordon – www.richardgordonphotography.com & courtesy of Hans Dickert

I was a Krampus when I did my first visit in Germany. It’s the easiest role because you don’t have to talk. You go in and look grim,” begins Hans Dickert, recalling nearly a lifetime’s wor th of holiday St Nicholas visits. He was 18, in his hometown of
Schnait tenbach (about an hour from Nürnberg) and knew almost everyone he was visiting.

“I dropped into one house with about seven kidsaround 5.30 in the evening. It was great, we gave the gif ts to the kids and off they went. Then the parents said, ‘Have a schnapps with us.’ Now, we had two more visits planned. I knew these people. If we didn’t stop for a drink, they’d never let us out of the house. So, we had one schnapps. And some Ouzo, 20ccl, not a shot.

We went back later for mulled wine and cookies,” he pauses, throwing a deadpan stare over Google Meet. “I’m from Bavaria. The mulled wine glass was a beer stein.”

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Now, DB parents and guardians who are expecting a visit from Hans or one of his assistant St Nicholases this year can relax. His drinking days are far behind him. A DB resident of 13 years, Hans is an active Lantau Boat Club paddler, hiker and on-the-weekend farmer. He works for a German industrial tech firm. We live and learn. What’s more, he’s had plenty of practice. Hans has been doing St Nicholas visits (before Christmas, traditionally on December 5) for nearly all of the 20 years he’s lived in Hong Kong, and for the last three years as part of local charity One World Spirit Association’s (OWS) cultural exchange programmes.

It’s been roughly 10 months since I chatted with Hans and his wife, OWS founder Shirlee, back when the couple was preparing its Lunar New Year events. Unsurprisingly those events got put on ice when Hong Kong got slammed in an Omicron outbreak in February. Those plans were canned, but the Dicker ts are back in business, making new ones, star ting with the St Nicholas visits for children aged two to six.

After getting an idea of how many kids are in the home, ages, genders and names, Hans or one of his ‘colleagues’ show up dressed up like St Nicholas with small gifts and sweets, sharing the historic folklore that gave bir th to the myth of the man in red. The legend stems from a Roman Empire-era Greek bishop who developed a reputation among early Christians for his secret gift-giving. “He left some money for very poor families and little candies on the night of December 5 for children,” explains Hans.

“The tradition travelled to Europe and it stuck. In Germany you give little gifts, in the Netherlands you give a larger one, so the tradition varies from place to place. But each time it’s the joy in the children that makes it so special,” Hans adds. “This shouldn’t be confused with Santa Claus; he visits on Christmas Day.”


This year will be the third in a row Hans and his St Nicholases – now counting Olli, a Finn; Gil, a Belgian; Nigel, a Brit and Sergius, a fellow German – have visited kids in DB, and he admits he’d love to see the tradition picked up across Hong Kong. OWS would be thrilled to teach anyone who’s interested the tricks of the trade, and both Hans and Shirlee would love to get into more schools and, most importantly, connect with organisations that serve underprivileged kids.

In fact, the Dicker ts need help if they hope to avoid turning requests down. “We had an enquiry from a kindergarten about St Nicholas, and really it’s just about manpower,” Shirlee says. “School visits need to be on weekdays and all our St Nicholases are volunteers. But we’re trying to work it out.”

In 2021, 27 DB families got visits from three teams, and Hans expects all this year’s available slots to fill up. In early November, seven families were already on board.

While OWS’ team of regular volunteers now numbers 15+, the Dicker ts have been looking for more support in the lead-up to the December event. They needed more golf cart drivers to get the St Nicholases to residents’ homes, and young volunteers (aged 13 years and up) to assist the team by liaising with families signed up for a visit.

“This is the second year, we have enrolled students from Po Leung Kuk Tong Nai Kan Junior Secondary College to assist us. We hope the volunteers who are helping on the Christmas visits will keep up the tradition down the road,” Hans says. “We want to recruit young people in par ticular, in order to pass on this wonderful tradition and legacy.”

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More is required of a wannabe St Nicholas than being willing to dress-up and Hans held a series of training days in November for new recruits. “They learn a bit about how to represent, how to pay attention to the children and the family when they go in, how to read out loud and how to interact with the kids,” he explains.

“Everyone needs to make their Golden Book. They can read from the text, and once they get into it, they can improvise a bit.” The big day this year is Sunday, December 4. Hans proudly shows off a new, handmade bishop’s sceptre, something like a shepherd’s staff, for St Nicholas to wield. It’s a traditional part of the costume that’s been missing until now. That was remedied when the Dickerts picked up a headpiece in Schnaittenbach on a visit this summer.

The final touch is the aforementioned Golden Book, which is a list of names, directions for the golf cart drivers, and some notes submitted by parents when they request the visit (check out OWS’s Facebook page for details: fb.me/e/32lcdNMWr). Most of the notes are little things – “Could help clean up,” “Needs to brush teeth better” and “Doesn’t finish breakfast” – but to a four-year-old the fact that St Nicholas knows these secrets must be astonishing.

“They look at us like, ‘How does he know that?’ It’s in the Golden Book,” Hans says with a chuckle. “We can’t let them look inside because it’s a ‘special’ book.” As COVID seems to come under some semblance of control and Hong Kong starts to re-connect with the world (when the Dickerts travelled in the summer, the airport was, “Like an old zombie movie. Everything was closed. We landed in Istanbul in the middle of the night and people were all over the place, life everywhere. It was like night and day.”) OWS is getting back at it, planning a Christmas Bazaar with the German Chamber of Commerce and rescheduling some of those postponed CNY events.

“We’re looking ahead to January, planning a Hanfu Chinese traditional clothing event with Hua Zi at Natural Space, and a series of workshops on Chinese calligraphy, spring couplets and an introduction to tea art,” Shirlee says.

In the meantime, December 4 is fast approaching. For the record, it’s not a one-way street. “We get the kids to sing or draw a picture for St Nicholas, keep them engaged and ask them to reflect on their year,” finishes Hans “Sometimes it can help parents out. I did this for many years in Germany and seeing how the kids grew up and changed. It’s amazing.”

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