What happened to Santa Claus?

Snowy landscape with Santa and sleigh

Listen to Brenda tell the story

“Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick!” So goes the tune about that guy who brings presents and drinks the milk and eats cookies that the kids leave out. The identity of this visitor was generally accepted when I was a kid. St. Nick was just one of many names for the jolly fellow 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 jolly or even a fellow, for that matter. The person who prefers flying sleighs and chimneys to public transport—understandable, considering the miserable train service—is the mysterious Christkind, the bringer of presents on Christmas Eve. Literally, it means Christ child, but is that who this is?

“It’s an angel,” a friend told me.

“No, it is the Christ child, but with wings, wearing a long, white, flowing robe,” said another.

Since when does baby Jesus have wings? Or wear a Victorian nightgown?

You rarely see representations of the Christkind, because nobody knows what he/she/it looks like. How can you market something so nebulous? And if it is baby Jesus, he isn’t going to be doling out presents from the manger. He’s supposed to be the one receiving them from those three guys who just arrived on camelback, two of whom are groaning: “Balthazar, if you had just let us use the GPS we would’ve arrived before dark, butthead!”

The vague depiction of the Christkind is probably why Germans have now incorporated Santa Claus into their Christmas repertoire. He is the ultimate marketable entity: chubby, fatherly, and pipe-smoking. Grandpa in a 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 explain how to do online banking or why the router isn’t working. The best of the grandpa world without the headaches.

So even though it’s officially the Christkind who brings presents, it’s Santa Claus who is plastered over everything in store windows, on candy boxes, wrapping paper and all other holiday merchandise. Santa Claus is St. Nick after being rebranded by Americans, and that’s what they do best.

St. Nick or Nikolaus may be a nice guy but he is accompanied by a nasty sidekick, known as the Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht. Knecht is the German word for squire. Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht visit preschools, elementary schools, and sometimes private homes. Nikolaus wears the traditional red suit and has a sack of walnuts, tangerines, and apples to give out to well-behaved children. And if word gets out that children have misbehaved, Knecht Ruprecht is on hand to punish the bad ones.

I’m thinking Nikolaus might want to update his choice of treats. When did you last see a child get excited over a tangerine or a walnut? It seems a bit antiquated. And for his part, Knecht Ruprecht, in his trendy brown burlap robe, disciplines children by hitting them with his birch switch or with a bag of ashes. Perhaps Mr. Knecht should consider updating his means of punishment, too, by restricting kids’ online screen time or taking away their PlayStation.  

My kids never met Knecht Ruprecht, since he never seems to turn up in Munich. Maybe it’s too far away from his mountain home or he forgot to buy his Deutschlandticket for the trains. At preschool they hinted at his existence, lending a tingle of excitement to the whole Nikolaus affair, but the only guy who showed up was the congenial fellow in the red suit.

The real Saint Nicholas was 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 when he makes his rounds. What I didn’t realize 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.

“I got chocolate, walnuts, and gummy bears!”
“I got chocolate Santa Clauses and candy bars!”
And my kids got: Nothing.

Their friends were so horrified that they gave my daughters some candy from their own stash.

Speaking of marketing, this is just what the Christian church did with Christmas itself. Christmas is timed to coincide with pre-Christian year-end celebrations, the year-end Saturnalia festivals in Roman times. Let’m keep their festivals, the early church elders calculated. We’ll just rebrand them and pretend we don’t notice that they’re actually celebrating those old gods so we can report back to headquarters that we met our targets. So basically, an early corporate takeover.

So which one is the “real” Santa, since there seem to be so many versions, even within one country?

It doesn’t matter. While tradition is a part of Christmas, I for one choose to celebrate not according to the rules, but in the true Christmas spirit: buying gifts and eating and drinking excessively. By the time January rolls around, I’m glad it’s all over. And set about reversing all the damage I did in December.

Brenda Arnold

Image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay

If you liked this blog post, you might also enjoy:
A visit to a Christmas market in Regensburg: Hot wine and cold toes
Learn the Germans’ secret to making Christmas last for months: The 37 Days of Christmas
My favorite dessert became a challenge in Germany: What happened to my pumpkin pie?

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