One of the tourist attractions on Germany’s westernmost North Sea island are garden fences made out of whalebone.
Yet they are not the only surviving relics of Borkum’s rich whaling history which began in the 18th century when hundreds of the island’s men were forced to crew whaling ships to survive. The other is a bizarre Santa Claus ritual called Klaas Ohm or “Uncle Klaus” which take place every year on the eve of St Nicolas Day on 5 December. Six of the island’s men don giant masks and chase through the streets in pursuit of Borkum’s young, unmarried women.
Mothers and grandmothers are hugged and given gingerbread cakes, but once caught, their younger counterparts are ritually beaten on the buttocks with cow horns. These used to be filled with sand until the practice was dropped in the 1990s. Yet even today’s sand-free cow horns leave bright red welts on the behinds of the unfortunate, beaten women.
The ceremony ends with the six masked men jumping off a pillar box-sized brick tower into a crowd of cheering islanders.
The ritual recalls the annual winter return of Borkum’s whaling men to an island which, because of their absence, had been taken over by women.
Klaas Ohm is all about men regaining control. Sexist it may be but Borkum’s young women are not complaining too much.
“OK, it’s against women,” 15-year-old Natalie told Germany’s Mare magazine, “But it’s part of it. This is our most important festival. It’s bigger than Christmas,” she insisted.