As most people know, modern day Christmas derives from pre-Christian, pagan celebration of the solstice, the return of the light. Christianization and in later times, reformation, remoulded and used elements of many popular pagan feasts to keep people connected to the church. In modern days, commercialization has taken over this role from the churches. The transformation of December gift bringers is a good example of this phenomenon.
The original December Gift bringer is Odin (or Wodan), the pre-Christian Germanic major god. Around December, Odin would lead a “Wild Hunt” through the sky on his flying white horse, Sleipnir, chasing the wolf Fenrir, who devoured the sun. His two black ravens “Huggin & Muninn” would listen at the chimneys, telling Wodan about the good and bad behaviours of the mortals. Children would place their boots or clogs at the fireplace, filled with carrots, straw or sugar for the horse. Odin would reward this by replacing the gifts with candy.
Saint Nicholas was the Catholic bishop of Myra in Turkey in the 4th Century. He was famous for his generous gifts to the poor. One of the stories tells about St Nicholas throwing coins through the window of a house, preventing the three daughters to become prostitutes in order to keep the family from starving. His birthday (actually dying day) on December 6 was being celebrated throughout Europe ever since by giving presents to children.
During the Christianization, the pagan traditions, connected to the Odin rituals, such as the horse on the roof and the placing of the shoes, were incorporated in the Saint Nicholas celebration. Saint Nicholas, as a gift bringer, is traditionally accompanied by a contrasting unpleasant character. This ‘dark’ and threatening figure has different appearances and names in different cultures throughout Europe: ‘Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Klaubauf, Bartle, Pelznickel, Schmutzli, Belzebub, Hans Muff, Drapp or Zwarte Piet’. Saint Nicholas has many similarities in appearance with Odin, like the white beard and white horse. He would also reward good and punish bad behavior. Instead of a black raven, he has a dark human helper listening at the chimneys.
The figure of ‘Father Christmas’ appeared for the first time in 17th century England. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, but was neither a gift bringer nor particularly associated with children. Father Christmas is also identified with the old belief in the god Woden (aka Odin or Wodan) and is portrayed as a bearded man dressed in a long green fur-lined robe. The Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens novel “A Christmas Carol” from 1843 closely resembles Father Christmas.
At the reformation that took place in 16th century Europe, Protestants changed the unwanted Roman-Catholic Saint Nicholas into the new gift bringer, ‘Christ Child or Christkindl’, who was specially made up for this purpose. The Christ Child is an angel-like being with blond hair, sometimes portrayed as an infant or a young child, bearing little resemblance to the infant of Bethlehem. In contrast to other gift bringers, the Christ Child is never to be seen by children. Because the protestants did not want to celebrate a Catholic Bishop’s birthday, at this point in history the date of gift-giving changed from December 6 to Christmas Eve, the former pagan ‘turn of the light’ celebration. In America the pronunciation and spelling of the “Christkindl” was later changed into “Kris Kringle”.
European and English emigrants took Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and the Christkindl with them to America. In the late 18th century these were merged into the character of “Santa Claus”. Santa Claus had the appearance and good spirit of Father Christmas but was a gift bringer like Saint Nicholas and the Christ Child. The name “Santa Claus” is obviously a derivative of “Sinterklaas”, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. In 1823 the poem “The night before Christmas” was published in a New York newspaper. Here, Santa Claus’ difference in appearance from Saint Nicholas was established. Due to lack of other explanation, the poem is arguably the basis of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer.
Up until the 1930’s, the American Santa Claus still looked a lot like the English father Christmas. Normally built, with a green fur-lined robe, grey/brown beard, no hat, but a wreath of holly on his head. The modern day image of Santa Claus, with his big belly and typical red and white outfit, the world owes to a 1931 advertising campaign by Coca-Cola. When establishing Santa’s look as we know it today, with his pointy hat, and boots, illustrator Haddon Sundblom was obviously inspired by tmhe ‘Tomte’ or ‘Nisse’, the Scandinavian gnome. Because of the similarities in appearance, Tomte or Nisse later merged with Santa and became the gift bringer in most of Scandinavia.
Also from ancient pre-Christian paganism derives the custom of worshiping an evergreen tree or log as part of the winter-rites. The tree has become an important part of modern day Christmas throughout the Christian world. In some parts of Europe the log has become the gift-bringer or plays another important role in modern day december customs. For example in Catalunya, Spain, the Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log) or Caga tió is ‘humanized’ and being pampered and ‘fed’ daily from December 8th on. At Three-Kings-Day it is put in the fireplace or beaten with a stick and ordered to defecate. While the children have left the room, the tió ‘poos’ out the presents.
After the second world war, in the 1950’s, North-American culture was widely exported. The relatively new gift-bringer Santa Claus took over big parts of the world, thanks to advertising campaigns by American companies and Hollywood movies, while pushing away or merging with local traditions. For many in the ‘old world’, this American Santa Claus became the embodiment of the dreaded commercialization and simplification of the traditional winter celebrations.
For instance, in the Netherlands, the gifts that grown-üps give each other at Saint Nicholas are traditionally modest in value and usually hidden inside a cynically applicable handmade craft piece accompanied by handwritten poem, jokingly commenting on events that have happened in the past year. Since preparations for this tradition are extremely time consuming, more and more Dutch people, regrettably, deviate from this fun celebration and chose to follow the North American tradition of simply placing gifts under the Christmas tree.
By: Michiel van Lith