Santa in all his incarnations
The man we call St. Nick and consider
to be a 'right jolly old elf,' was, in fact, Sankt Nikolaus, the Bishop
of Myra whose piety, not jollity, guided him to give everything he owned
to the poor. The good bishop had a long gray beard and a flowing cape,
not quite a fur-trimmed red suit. It was his figure that inspired the
Bavarian born American illustrator, Thomas Nast, who created Santa as
we know him today for Harper's Weekly in 1862. (Nast is also responsible
for giving us the animal figures of the Democrats and the Republicans.)
It would not be until the advertisers handling Coca-Cola took over the
image of Santa, however, that he would become the relentlessly cheerful
soul we recognize today.
Touring the countryside, Sankt Nikolaus
visited children everywhere, questioning them about their behavior.
He was not accompanied by smiling, toy-making elves, but by the unpleasant
Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht, a ragged, sinister, dark figure, the very
alter ego of good old Nick. Krampus carried a sack full of switches
for the less well-behaved children, and struck terror in any child who
thought he or she had misbehaved. On Dec. 5th, the eve of the visit,
children put out a shoe or boot, a sturdy precursor to our stockings
hung by the chimney. If they were good children, they were rewarded
with toys and sweets, if not, the notorious lumps of coal were put in
The name Kris Kringle is an adaptation
of the German word Chriskindl or Christ Child who is the giver of gifts.
The name Santa Claus is more than likely an adaptation of the Dutch
Sinterklass (St. Nicholas) which came with Dutch immigrants to Pennsylvania
where the Dutch and Germans settled together.
In words and story, Santa became
the latter-day fellow we all know and love as the invention of Washington
Irving who considered Santa to be a pipe-smoking Dutchman, and imagined
him soaring over trees in a wagon drawn by air-born horses. This incarnation
was reinforced in 1822 by the famous "The Night Before Christmas."
Clement Moore added the shaking belly and turned him the portly figure
into an elf. It was Moore, too, who questioned the ability of horses
to fly, but knew such feat might be accomplished by reindeer. This Santa
is a long way from the more somber Sankte Nikolaus though the lineage
The season begins with the first
Sunday of Advent and the placing of the Advent wreath. One red candle
is placed in the wreath on each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas,
usually accompanied by singing. Though Advent was established about
the year 480 A. D. as a period of penance and fasting, it has lost that
aspect. The Advent Calendar originally held a door to be opened each
of the 24 days before Christmas. Behind the door were pictures of various
Christmas scenes or symbols, but today it usually contains chocolates
and candies. Christkendelsmarkt or Christmas markets are common throughout
Germany, the most famous being in Nuremberg. Originally these were fairs
selling the wares of craftspeople and artisans, today you can buy presents
and foodstuffs, and have a drink of mulled wine.
The German Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree is a gift from the German countries, the famous tannenbaum of song.
Originally, the wreath was the only decoration until Christmas Eve.
On the night before Christmas, the German mother would trim the tree,
using lighted candles. When the tree was ready, she signaled her family
by ringing a bell. Though wax candles were the tradition, hand-blown
glass ornaments, many of great elaboration, first appeared in Germany.
The family gathered around the tree to exchanges presents, then continued
on to Mass. Although we do not know with certainty, the tree may have
evolved from the Paradise play, a medieval mystery play which represented
Adam and Eve and their expulsion from paradise. Eden was represented
as a large tree decorated with apples set in a circle of lighted candles.
Epiphany in Germany
The twelve days of Christmas, those
days that bring maids a-milking and lords a-leaping, extend from December
25 through January 6, or the Three Kings Day (Drei Ksnig Tag). This
day, often called Little Christmas, was traditionally a revered holiday
in Germany and Austria. On the eve of the Epiphany doorways would be
inscribed in chalk with the letters C-M-B. This either represents Caspar,
Melchior, Balthasar, though the church interpretation says that it stands
for the Latin Christus Mansionem Benedictat or 'Christ bless this home.'
There are still areas of Bavaria and Austria where children go from
house to house singing carols and collecting alms as a gift turned over
to charities that work with the poor.
German Christmas Food
Goose is the traditional German
Christmas dish. Frequently it is stuffed with a mixture of apples and
prunes. We've given a recipe for a wild rice stuffing, but if you want,
you can peel and core apples, using them in equal proportion to soaked
prunes. Allow one cup per pound of goose. A buffet table would also
be spread with a selection of the many German wursts. And, of course,
there is the wonderful invention that is called stollen, as well as
many other German baked goods. Christmas is baking time the world around.