The great German Christmas debate

The great German Christmas debate

by Kristi Adams
Stripes Europe

Few contest that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ (in the nonsecular sense of the season). However, the accompanying holiday traditions aren’t always as clear-cut.

For American families, the Christmas season and particularly Christmas Eve is firmly Santa Claus territory. Leading up to the big day, revelers will find a Santa ensconced in every shopping mall and big retail store across America. With an army of elves by his side, Santa’s job leading up to Christmas Eve is to sit for the obligatory holiday pictures and listen to wishlists. 

On Christmas Eve, of course, he then leaves the mall and flies around the world with his nine reindeer to hurtle presents down chimneys and under Christmas trees. And we Americans track him in real-time with the latest satellite technology used by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, (NORAD) as he circumnavigates the globe. 

In American culture, Santa is synonymous with St. Nicholas. The descriptors, “Santa” or “Jolly Old Saint Nick”, are simply a difference in semantics. One and the same to be used interchangeably with no difference in meaning whatsoever.

That is decidedly not the case in German Christmas culture.


St. Nick vs. Saint Nicholas

In Germany, Saint Nicholas is in fact based on the actual Catholic saint, St. Nicholas of Myra – a wealthy, benevolent saint who had a penchant for secretly leaving gifts, particularly under the cover of darkness. He died Dec. 6, 343 A.D., hence the reason his celebration and feast day is observed on Dec. 6.

In preparation for the big day, German children leave boots and shoes near doors and windows (much like American children would hang stockings for Santa Claus), on the evening of Dec. 5 and awake to find presents and goodies left by St. Nicholas.

Dec. 6 is often the “big day” for presents and gift-giving in German culture, with a smaller celebration on Christmas Eve.

But history, religion, and tradition become strange bedfellows when it comes to explaining who brings the gifts on Christmas Eve in Germany.


A Christkind is born

As the world readied itself for change and stepped out of the Middles Ages and into the Renaissance period, Martin Luther (Nov. 10, 1483 – Feb. 18, 1546) also hit the scene. Martin Luther became a prominent figure in the Protestant Reformation, as he strongly rejected teachings and practices of the Catholic Church in Germany – including … saints.

Protestant children (and their families) couldn’t very well be seen consorting with the likes of a Catholic St. Nicholas, so it is said that Martin Luther invented the Christkind, or Christ Child to deliver presents, naturally on the eve of Christ’s celebrated birth. This angelic, golden gossamer-clad being functions much like the American notion of Santa Claus – and magically delivers presents in the night, on Christmas Eve.

Over time, many German families incorporated both Saint Nicholas and the Christkind into their Christmas traditions – however, never were the two interchangeable, as each operated on a different day and represented two independent traditions. 

As Europeans immigrated to America, they brought many cultural traditions with them, including the celebration of Saint Nicholas. But, prior to 1931, St. Nicholas was often depicted as a spindly, bearded man who dressed in flowing red robes and carried a hooked staff. The big jolly man in the white-fur-trimmed, red suit came about via an advertising campaign launched by The Coca-Cola Company (read more here). For better or worse, this new version of Santa became immensely popular across the globe, and the image of Saint Nicholas, in America, changed to what most Americans picture as the modern Santa.

This revamped version of Saint Nicholas even made his way back to Europe from America, as the Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus) in Germany.


The Weihnachtsmann vs. the Christkind

Now Germans had a dilemma.

The Weihnachtsmann and the Christkind had been double-booked, both scheduled on Christmas Eve to deliver presents.

As Christmas has arguably, become more commercialized (Black Friday anyone?), and the American notion of Santa Claus threatens to usurp the more traditional Christkind in Germany – many Germans (and even Brits) have begun fighting back.

“Santa Claus free” (Weihnachtsmann-frei) zones have been increasing in popularity in parts of Germany, the first mainstream effort launched in 2002 by the Bonifatiuswerk of the German Catholics – both to bring back the true meaning of Christmas and clarify the distinction between Santa Claus and St. Nicholas. 

As Santa Claus increases in popularity – along with the euphemisms for him, particularly the American notion of labeling “him” as St. Nicholas – the lines of Christmas logic start to blur. As St. Nicholas was, in fact, a real man, and Santa Claus is … well, more magical in nature, German families wishing to adhere to more traditional German principles for Christmas have a growing dilemma on their hands when teaching their children about the various traditions of Christmas.

Imagine having the “Great Christmas Debate” with a question-riddled six-year-old, demanding to know:  Who is Santa Claus? Does he know Christkind? Do they both ride in the sleigh? Was the St. Nicholas (he of the Dec. 6 lineage) from the North Pole too?

Adults can easily discuss the merits of the ‘Great German Christmas Debate’, but the waters become muddied when matters of faith and religion bump up against the global cross-pollination of ideas on how to celebrate the Christmas season.

Who’s to say we can’t celebrate it all?

In my home, our pagan Christmas tree is adorned with all manner of frivolity. The angels fight for space amongst the Disney ornaments, a hand-painted vignette featuring Jesus and the wise men catches the glow from the strands of 220-volt Christmas lights, Krampus and St. Nicholas stare each other down from opposite branches, while a pair of silver bells serve as warning sirens to keep the cat out of the tree. It all comes together to represent a delightful blend of memory, belief, and culture.

In my mind, Saint Nicholas kicks the season off near the start of Advent. Krampus growls in the wings, in a German version of “Scared Straight.” The Christkind flutters ahead of Santa in the dark night, leaving a mystical trail of hope, excitement, and love in their wake.

And the entire season just becomes more magical each year.

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