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?