Liv Hambrett

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German Culture, Travel: Germany

The Cast of Christmas

I was most surprised, when I spent my first Christmas with the northerner I’d eventually marry, to find out that in the glorious Schleswig-Holstein, children get visited by der Weichnachtsmann. Quite literally, the Christmas Man. He looks an awful lot like Santa – one could say they are one and the same. My first German Christmas was spent in Münster, where I was introduced to the concept of the Christkind – child of Christ. I assumed that, if the Christkind came to the kids in Münster, then she probably took care of Germany as a country – it isn’t too big a place, perfectly doable. After all, Santa Claus takes care of far more.

The Christkind (who, while simultaneously being the child of Christ is a golden-haired female figure, an angel or a sprite) pops in while the family is down the road at church, and leaves presents under the tree. She seems to be the main gift-giver for swathes of Europe – and in Germany’s west and south – and was actually proclaimed so, in Germany, by Martin Luther himself. Martin Luther who was not, as they are in many parts of Germany, Catholic. The Catholics adopted the Christkind, too, in the 1800s. In fact, loads of predominantly Catholic countries have the Christkind as their Christmas gift-giver. So, okay, Luther announced her as the Christ-like gift-giver, the Catholics liked the idea and adopted it, and there you have it.

But then. Enter stage right, der Weihnachtsmann. The Christmas Man, sporting a red coat and a white beard and a large Bauch starts delivering presents to kids in the north and the east. He is, let’s not fool ourselves, Santa Claus simply masquerading under a German name. He relieves the Christkind of her duties in the northern and eastern parts of Germany (but, just to make things really ridiculously complicated, not in all households) thus making a regionally divided country even more so, and Christmas gains a new cast member.

Now, we cannot talk about our Santa Claus – and if we are operating on the assumption der Weihnachtsmann is Santa, then him too – without acknowledging the loins from which he sprang: St Nicholas, or as he is known here, Nikolaus. Nikolaus was an actual saint, born in what was then Greece and is now Turkey, and was known for being, among other things, rather generous. In the Netherlands and Germany and many other countries, he traditionally visits kids on the 6th of December and puts treats in their boots if they’ve been good, and a stick if not.

St Nicholas, as a general rule, doesn’t come to us ‘new world kids’ (or the Brits) largely because, I suspect, his modern, fatter, less saintly version does (someone we even sometimes still call St Nick). When the Germans and Dutch emigrated en masse to the States, they took Nikolaus/Sinterklaas with them and he must have mutated over time and became a less religious, more commercialised figure enjoyed by the Brits, Australians, Canadians, and Kiwis alike. Nikolaus, however, definitely comes to little Germans (and loads of other Europeans) as a warm up for the big act, the Christkind. But here’s the kicker: up here, the kids get both Nikolaus and his fatter, more modern version. And they swear, vehemently, he is not the same thing.

Now, my working theory is Nikolaus went to America, became Santa Claus and then at some point in the 20th century (post-war) parts of Germany inexplicably did away with the Christkind but kept Nikolaus, took Santa Claus as the Americans/British/Australians etc knew him to be, renamed him der Weihnachtsmann, and now have two old men in long, reddish coats bringing the children presents on two different days in December.

What I need to know is, when did der Weihnachtsmann start visiting Germany, pushing out the Christkind and why? Perhaps you can help me?

Featured image credit

11 Comments

  1. Jo

    29 November, 2018 at 11:04 am

    I am plumping for the Christkind!
    A girl Sprite
    Wonderful!

  2. Elisabeth Houppert, Indianapolis, Indiana

    29 November, 2018 at 11:27 am

    Thank you for this great article about Germany‘s christmas traditions! I am a native born German (who emigrated to the US) and I grew up with in Bavaria where Christkind always came on December 24th! I was always a little confused about the role of the Weihnachtsmann! Jedoch kam der Nikolaus immer am 6. Dezember zu uns und hat uns mit Schokolade, Orangen, Datteln und Nüße beschert! Living in the US my children always had Santa bring their presents! It can really get a little confusing, thanks for your lighthearted effort of bringing a little bit of clarity to it all! I do really enjoy your blog!

  3. Fritz Heberlein

    29 November, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    >What I need to know is, when did der Weihnachtsman start visiting Germany, pushing out the Christkind and why?

    Ich kann dazu ein wenig was sagen, muss das allerdings auf Deutsch tun, weil mein Englisch für solch “heilige” Dinge nicht hinreicht. Also:

    Der Weihnachtsmann ist viel jüngeren Datums als das lutherische Christkind. Er ist ein Produkt des protestantischen Rationalismus des späten 18. Jahrhunderts, wo die protestantische Orthodoxie sich daran machte, die letzten Relikte “katholischer” Heiligenverehrung zu beseitigen, unter anderem aus dem politisch motivierten Wunsch heraus, die Unterschiede zwischen Lutheranern und Reformierten zu minimieren. Dieses Problem existierte nur in den Preussischen Territorien, im Süden gab es mangels Reformierter keine Notwendigkeit zu solchen Unionsbestrebungen. Der Heilige Nikolaus wandelte sich somit vorwiegend dort zum säkularen Weihnachtsmann und er musste mitsamt seinem Bescherungstag vom 6. auf den 24. Dezember migrieren. Dort verdrängte er das Chrstkind, und er konnte das, weil das Christkind, obwohl lutherischen Ursprungs, wegen seiner in der Barockzeit entwickelten Ikonographie als Engel in den Verdacht geriet, “katholischer Natur” zu sein, denn Protestanten glauben ja nicht an Engel…

    Im evangelischen Teil Frankens, wo ich aufgewachsen bin, und vermutlich auch in anderen protestantischen Regionen, verschwand der Nikolaus übrigens nicht ganz, sondern wurde durch den “Pelzmärtl” ersetzt, eine pädagogische Drohfigur, welche den Kindern ihr (vorher bei den Eltern erfragtes) Sündenregister vorlas und ihnen das Versprechen auf Besserung abverlangte. Das war die Vorbedingung dafür, dass an Weihnachten das Christkind überhaupt kam. So war es noch in meiner Kindheit in den 50ern, und ich wurde auch einmal vom Pelzmärtl in den Sack gesteckt, aber auf mein Versprechen auf Besserung hin wieder freigelassen.

    Die konfesionelle Durchmischung infolge der Flüchtlingsströme nach dem 2. Weltkrieg führte schließlich dazu, dass man heute vielerorts sowohl den – katholischen – Nikolaus “verehrt” (und am 6. Dezember die Schuhe zum Befüllen mit Süßigkeiten vor die Tür stellt), als auch die – evangelischen – Weihnachtsmann oder Christkind.

    Übrigens ist auch der Christbaum ursprünglich eine protestantische “Erfindung”, in den katholischen Gegenden hatte man stattdessen eine Krippe. Heute hat sich der Christbaum durchgesetzt, während die Krippe überwiegend “katholisch” geblieben ist. Also hat man in katholischen Häusern oft Chrstbaum und Krippe, in den evangelischen nur den Baum.

    Vielen Dank für den interessanten Blog. Ich habe selber eine Tochter die in den USA verheiratet ist und zwar mit einem Amerikaner chilenischer Abstammung, sodass die Kinder sich zwischen amerikanischer, deutscher und hispanischer Kultur und Sprache zurechtfinden müssen – und sie tun es erstaunlich gut!

    Eine Gute Adventszeit und frohe Weihnachten!
    Fritz

    1. Ute Seemann

      1 December, 2018 at 8:30 pm

      nein, die Schuhe mussten ans Fenster gestellt werden, ordentlich geputzt …. dann kam der Nikolaus am 6. Dezember nachts und fuellte die Schuhe mit Suessigkeiten. der Weihnachtsmann kam am Heiligen Abend …. rattelte am Gartentor so gegen 6 Uhr im Dunkeln, wir alle zitterten ….. las dann im Wohnzimmer seine Liste vor: Ute, du hast am 5. Mai deiner mutter angelogen usw …. Birgit, du hast a, 27 Juni deinen teller nicht aufgegessen …. und machte trotzdem den Sack auf und verteilte die Gaben ….. schone Erinnerungen,… nach Kriegsende …

  4. Jo Alex Sg

    29 November, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    Thank you for the delightful article! I’ve made a brief search over the web and found some info bits on it but most probably you already know them already:
    The Wikipedia article on the Christkind says, among other things, that:
    ‘… Since the 1990s, the Christkind is facing increasing competition from the Weihnachtsmann in the American version of Santa Claus, caused by the use of Santa Claus as an advertising figure.[citation needed] Many traditionalist Catholics in recent times have advocated for the tradition of the Christkind as a “beautiful means of restoring the true meaning of Christmas”.[7] …’
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christkind

    In this site, they say ‘…Fairly quickly, however, he (Weihnactsmann) became associated with the commercial exploitation of the Christmas holiday, and a Christian backlash ensued, which has now evolved into a philosophical and theological battle between the sweet, angel-faced “Christkind” with gossamer hair and the jolly, red-clad old fellow with the flowing beard. Some places in Germany have declared themselves a “weihnachstmannfreie nikolausZone” and refuse to display any images associated with Santa Claus while simultaneously promoting old St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, whose day is celebrated on December 6, with chocolate “Nikoläuse.” The small town of Fluorn-Winzeln in Southern Germany has outlawed the “Weihnachtsmann” and garnered national attention for its actions. The Bonifatiuswerk, an organization of German Catholics, maintains a website to encourage the banning of Santa Claus from German homes and businesses. In Austria, the Pro Christkind organization has dedicated itself to the same pursuit. …’
    http://deutschdrang.com/dir/german-customs-through-the-year/the-great-christmas-debate-christkind-vs-the-weihnachtsmann/

    This other blog confirms that: ” …Although it has been commercialised over time, the traditional Christkind is still important to many families in Germany, Austria, and other parts of Europe, and there is much less commercialisation of it than there is of Santa Claus. Since the 1990s, the Christkind been fighting with the commercial celebration of Santa, but it remains a much-loved part of European Christmas time. I will leave you with an article I found from 2009 about Austrians campaigning to save the Christkind tradition from Santa Claus!…”
    https://blogs.transparent.com/german/forget-santa-meet-the-christkind/

    Hope it helps!
    P.S.: And thanks once more for all your lovely articles, sometimes it´s hard for me to give feedback as often as I would like to but I always try to catch up with the missed posts whenever I find some free time!

  5. Ruth Anderson

    29 November, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks for tackling these, sometimes confusing, Christmas traditions… In my understanding the Christkind is not a ‘child of Christ’ but The Christchild (Jesus)… and we give gifts to remember the gift He is to all of us. That’s why in Germany you traditionally get your presents on Christmas Eve… St. Nikolaus of course always came on the 6th of December, a tradition I carried on with my children and now grandchildren, even here in Canada. As far as ‘der Weihnachtsmann’ is concerned, I definitely agree, he is a sort of German Santa… and he was the one who’d leave coals for you, or a stick, if you had been bad… but somehow I guess he never showed up at our house 😉
    Merry Christmas, Frohe Weihnachten to you and your family

  6. Erik Bullen

    29 November, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    One other complication of my German/American family: When to do the Bescherung. We split giving gifts on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Morning.

  7. Claudia (8900km. Berlin ⇔ 東京)

    30 November, 2018 at 7:22 am

    Of course Weihnachtsmann and Nikolaus are different people! To be honest, I always kind of assumed Nikolaus to be a physically smaller version of the Weihnachtsmann, just because. Kind of like an employee of the might Weihnachtsmann. While I had an illustrated bible, my parents had both grown up atheist, so to me Christmas is not about Christ at all. It’s about lights in the darkness, too much Spekulatius, Glühwein and family. 🙂

  8. Sabine

    30 November, 2018 at 11:01 pm

    I grew up in Franconia where we first had a visit from the Pelzmärtel on 11th Nov (see the comment from Fritz Heberlein above) – the Pelzmärtel basically sent out a warning to get your act together, followed by the Nikolaus on 6th Dec who would check on the progress.

    We never got to see Pelzmärtel, he just knocked on the door sending us into hiding. Nikolaus came fairly regularly (until we were old enough to figure out that someone from next door was wearing my grandfather’s old dressing gown) and if he could not make it, he left his stuff in our wellies. If he came indoors, we had to show him that we had what it takes, either by singing a song, playing the recorder (badly) or reciting a poem. Or hiding under the table, crying in my mother’s arms and being laughed at etc.

    The Christkind we saw a few times from afar at the opening ceremony of the Nürnberg xmas market and so were never in any doubt about her/its glamour. On Heiligabend, the Christkind somehow managed to set up the xmas tree, put the presents below and spend the entire afternoon with my mother while my dad would serve lunch and bring us to Christmette (Lutheran afternoon service) and back.
    Once the Christkind was done with decorating and whatever, she/it would ring a tiny bell and disappear.

    The xams tree was never up and shining before Heiligabend. To this day (and I have been around) it feels weird to me when I come into a home with a fully decoreated tree weeks early.

    With my own kid, I refused to go down this road. My inlaws however did their best to undermine me. My daughter has turned out to be an admirably healthy steady individual who loved her grandparents very much.

  9. Ashly Pashlee

    2 December, 2018 at 1:40 am

    I love the incorporation for both German and American Christmas!!! Thank you for sharing!

  10. crissouli

    6 December, 2018 at 10:25 pm

    Congratulations, your blog is included in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at
    https://thatmomentintime-crissouli.blogspot.com/2018/12/friday-fossicking-30th-nov-7th-dec-2018.html
    Thank you, Chris

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