Will the real Santa Claus please stand up?
8 December 2019
“Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick!” goes the tune, referring to the guy who brings presents and eats the milk and cookies that the kids leave out. Come to think of it, they should probably leave something more substantial, considering the journey he undergoes, like a pile of protein bars. The identity of this visitor was generally accepted when I was a kid growing up in Ohio. St. Nick was just one of many names for the jolly old man in the red suit who comes in a sleigh filled with presents. As it turns out, it’s not so simple.
Here in Bavaria St. Nick is not quite so jolly. Or to be more exact, he is a nice guy but is accompanied by a nasty sidekick, known as the Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht (Knecht is an old German word for squire). St. Nick and his cohort visit preschools, elementary schools and sometimes private homes. He wears the “traditional” red suit (there’s a reason for those quotes, which we’ll come to later) and has a sack of walnuts, tangerines and candy to give out to well-behaved children.Honestly, he might want to update his stash for the modern crowd. I know we’re all spoiled by modern society, but tell the truth: When’s the last time you saw a child get excited over a tangerine? If children admit that they have not been quite so good, Knecht Ruprecht, in his trendy brown burlap robe, hits them with his birch branch or with his bag of ashes. As one does.
OK, this is just the story. My kids never met Knecht Ruprecht, since in modern-day Munich, at least, he never seems to turn up. Maybe it’s too far away from his mountain home. Or he couldn’t be bothered dealing with the train system (German trains are not all they’re cracked up to be). At preschool they always hinted at his presence, at least, lending a tingle of excitement to the whole affair, but the only person to actually make an appearance was the congenial fellow in the red suit.
Saint Nicholas started his career as a bishop in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, and was known to be kind to children, which is where the whole idea of gifts for kids began. December 6th is his feast day in the Catholic tradition, so this is the day when he makes his rounds, with or without his sidekick.
What I didn’t realize in my foreign naiveté is that he is also supposed to visit children’s homes the night before, who leave their shoes outside the door so that he’ll fill them with candy.
Except for my kids. I was so busy with advent calendar logistics (see my previous post) that I didn’t even catch wind of this other German tradition. Years later, my kids told me how their classmates would brandish their goodies at school on Nikolaus, December 6th.
“What did you get? I got chocolate, walnuts and gummy bears!”
“I got chocolate Santa Clauses, candy bars and sugar-coated almonds!”
“Huh? You got candy in your shoes? I didn’t get anything!”
The truth was out: My poor kids had a clueless foreign mom, so they didn’t get any candy on December 6th. Some of their friends were so horrified that they even took pity on them and donated some from their own stash. On the upside, my kids got more candy on Halloween. Besides, witches have pointy hats like Santa, so that sort of counts, right?
Far more intriguing than Nikolaus is the mysterious Christkind in Bavaria, the bringer of presents on Christmas Eve. Literally translated it means Christ child, but upon closer scrutiny this is not who this really is.
“It’s an angel,” a friend told me.
“No, it’s the Christ child, but with wings, wearing a long, white, flowing robe,” said another.
Since when does the Christ child have wings? Or don Victorian nightwear for women? I’m not buying it.
You rarely see representations of the Christkind, because nobody really knows what he/she/it looks like. How can you market something so nebulous? And if it is baby Jesus, he certainly isn’t going to be doling out presents from the manger. After all, he’s supposed to be the one receiving them from those three guys who just arrived on camelback, two of whom are groaning: “If you’d just let us take the GPS we would’ve arrived before dark, Balthazar.”
That’s probably why Germans have also incorporated Santa Claus into their Christmas repertoire. He is the ultimate marketable entity: chubby, fatherly, benevolent and pipe-smoking. It’s basically Grandpa in a charming, fuzzy red suit. Better yet, he never hangs around to make old man noises or leave old man smells (emanating from that pipe – or worse), and never asks you to take out the trash or explain to him how skype works. It doesn’t get any better than that.
So even though it’s officially the Christkind who brings presents, it’s Santa Claus who is plastered over everything in store windows, candy boxes, wrapping paper and all other holiday merchandise. Santa Claus is St. Nick after being remodeled by Americans and if there’s anything they know how to do, it’s to market something. Just look at Coca-Cola, who turned sugary water into a multi-million-dollar business (the fact that everything else WWII soldiers could get their hands on tasted like chlorine or caused diarrhea admittedly did help). Speaking of which, it is no accident that the deep red of Santa’s suit is identical with that of the Coca-Cola company. They have succeeded in making the world believe that his coat has always been that color.
If that’s not a great marketing job, I’ll eat my birch branch.
But marketing such things is nothing new. The Christian church has been doing it since the very beginning. After all, Christmas is timed to coincide with pre-Christian year-end celebrations. These date back to Roman times, probably to the Saturnalia festivals held at year’s end. Let them keep their festivals, just rebrand them and everybody will be happy, was the thinking. Not much different from a modern corporate takeover, really.
As it turns out, Knecht Ruprecht is also related to the creepy, Grimms fairy-tale like creatures that come out at carnival time during the Alemmanische Fastnacht in Swabia and Switzerland, which is why they are practically identical. Both originate from the alpine countries. The basic job description of the carnival creepies is to drive out the evil spirits of winter, which is not so different from Knecht Ruprecht’s job.
Maybe the thin air at high altitudes caused people to hallucinate or perhaps it was something people came up with to while away the harsh mountain winters. It’s also conceivable that someone once saw an ugly person in a fur coat at night and it became a thing. Who knows how this stuff comes about.
For the rulers of former East Germany, Christmas posed a serious challenge. The population was Christian, but the state was supposed to take the place of God. How do you deal with that? You couldn’t just let people celebrate Christmas if there was no God. This posed quite a conundrum.
Somewhere buried in the higher echelons of the East German Politbüro, the country’s top ruling committee, was a group of very creative minds. They set about solving this delicate task: If only they could recast Christmas in the shape of the communist party, they could allow East Germans to continue celebrating (sound familiar?). If they could find a way to allow people to enjoy the holidays as they had before, it would help keep unrest under wraps, or wrapped, in colorful paper, in this case. Heh-heh.
They took the most visible elements of Christmas and – you guessed it – rebranded them. Chocolate Santa Clauses were still allowed, but now they were called Schokoladenhohlkörper zum Jahresende. This ridiculously long German expression has an equally ridiculous meaning: hollow chocolate figures to celebrate the year’s end.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that “hollow chocolate body” can be squeezed into one word in German. This is an admirable accomplishment in itself. One could hardly think of a more laughable name, but it allowed the communists to safe face and the East Germans to keep their chocolate Santas.
But there’s more. You might think that the communists would have at least left Jesus alone. After all, how could you possibly transform the Son of God himself to make it compatible with the ruling dogma. Challenge accepted! There was no stopping those Politbürocrats. They simply renamed the Christkind (reputed by some to be an angel, you recall) to the geflügelte Jahresendfigur, the winged year-end figurine. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it.
“Hey, are you putting a winged year-end figurine on the top of your Christmas tree – I mean, on your year-end large pine tree with little lights and glittery things on it?”
OK, that was me, not the communists.
You can only imagine how those politicians-turned-marketing geniuses broke out into hysterics when they came up with these expressions, surpassed only by their glee when their suggestion was actually accepted – but only in public. In private people smirked, rolled their eyes and continued using the standard terms. These expressions are now a thing of the past, just like the Berlin Wall, and have been relegated to the dustbin like useless ripped-up wrapping paper on Christmas morning.
St. Nicholas and Santa are often confused with one another, since they are really the same thing, just in different countries. Shop windows in Munich will often show a Santa Claus figure, clearly representing Father Christmas (just to confuse you with yet another name for the end-of-the-year gift bearer, as the communists would have called him) wearing a miter and sporting a pot belly, surrounded by clouds of cotton snow and wearing the traditional blue coat.
Blue? Santa Claus doesn’t wear a blue coat, you say?
He used to. Some merchants seem to still have their pre-Coca-Cola Santa Claus mannequins which are still wearing a blue coat – sometimes even green.
It’s all a matter of what you’re used to. Until Queen Victoria got married in a white bridal gown, people used to simply wear a nice dress for their wedding. With her wedding she inadvertently created a multimillion-dollar business in white bridal gowns overnight. Modern brides now feel that this dress is a must, just as we don’t recognize a Santa unless he’s wearing that particular red.
At this point, some people might be asking themselves which one is the “real” Santa, since there seem to be so many versions, even within one country.
Well, here’s what I say: It doesn’t really matter. While tradition is a part of Christmas, I for one choose to celebrate not according to the rules, but by what’s in the true Christmas spirit: buying things, eating excessively for several days and come January, being glad that it’s finally over.