DECEMBER 22, 2011 10:57AM

Germany's war on Santa

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 No Santa
"We believe in the Christ Child":
Original logo of pro-christkind.org

 

IT WOULD BE MISLEADING to speak of a German war on Santa Claus, since there is probably no figure more popular among ordinary Germans than the Weihnachtsmann, increasingly known just as Santa. You can find him everywhere here at Christmastime: on coffee mugs, on gift wrap, molded in chocolate, and standing on street corners collecting money for the Salvation Army. But that’s just the problem for conservatives from the various established and “free” churches: If there’s one thing these people can agree on, it is that the modern figure of Santa is a sinister foreign import who corrupts children and undermines something they call "the true Christmas spirit."

 

This might sound odd at first, since Saint Nick in his many guises is as German as Christmas trees and nutcrackers. The original Saint Nicholas was a fourth century bishop in Myra, located in modern-day Turkey, who gave rise to many legends about his tremendous generosity. Since he was the patron saint of children (along with sailors and many other threatened groups), medieval Christians throughout Europe gave presents to their kids on his name day, December 6.

 

This tradition continues in some countries, most notably the Netherlands, where Sinterklaas reigns supreme and Christmas is largely an afterthought. Many Germans also place small presents in their children’s shoes on St. Nicholas Day. But today’s custom of giving gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day goes back to Martin Luther personally. In 1535 he introduced the practice of giving gifts to his household staff on Christmas Eve in an effort to suppress the popish Nicholas cult. According to the Great Reformer, it was the Christ Child – or the Christkindl in some dialects – himself who brought the presents. A corrupted version of this idea survives in American Christian lore in the person of “Kris Kringle,” which is now another name for Santa Claus.

 

Christkindl 
Traditional Christkindl performer
from Straubing, Bavaria

 

The gift-giving Baby Jesus is traditionally depicted as a small blond child dressed in white. At the annual Christkindl Market in Nuremberg an actress has depicted the Christkindl ever since the local Nazi Party reinvigorated the festival in 1933. While the Christkindl continues to bring the presents in many Protestant regions of northern Germany, he’s feeling the heat from Santa.

 

In Catholic regions Sankt Nikolaus continued to distribute his presents on December 6, but he increasingly blended with pagan figures from Keltic and Germanic mythology. In Bavaria and Austria, a devil-like figure called the Krampus, complete with horse hooves and horns, appeared alongside Nikolaus, beating naughty children with a stick. He was in turn descended from the Keltic “Perchten,” frightening creatures associated with the goddess Frigga and Wotan’s Wild Hunt, who still appear in the Rough Nights (a.k.a. twelve days of Christmas, a time of magic and danger) in many rural areas in southern Germany.

 

Perchten 
Have yourself a scary little Christmas:
Quasi-pagan Perchten figures still wander through
villages in Austria and Bavaria during the "Rough Nights."
Traditional Christmas celebrations were more like Halloween than
the "Silent Night" type of Christmas we know today.

 

Knecht Ruprecht, a satanic figure carrying a big stick, continues to accompany Saint Nick in many places in one of the most famous examples of the good cop/bad cop routine. The friendly old saint himself gradually assumed some of the qualities of the gods Wotan and Freyr, the ancient lords of the solstice, bringing to life ancient rituals that are still twitching in most people’s subconscious. And why not? Pagan yuletide was fun, with lots of mead, roast boar, and gift-giving. Even today, there’s more than a little of the old Roman Saturnalia festival in your typical German Christmas party. In fact, Christmas wasn't even on December 25 until 336, when the Church moved it to that date in order to coopt Rome's raucus Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun) birthday celebration.

 

By the nineteenth century the generic Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man), made up of many local traditions, had become a familiar figure in Catholic regions. He fit in well with the Biedermeier tradition of Christmas trees and carols. Then, in 1863, Thomas Nast, a German artist who had relocated to New York two decades earlier, sketched a version of a fat Saint Nicholas dressed in red furs that was largely based on the Belzenickel figure he knew from his own childhood in Landau/Palatinate. This Saint Nicholas, who soon became conflated with the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition in New York State, gradually became familiar around the world thanks to modern communications technology, most notably the Christmas card.

 

Herr Winter 
Austrian artist Moritz von Schwind's 1847 engraving
"Herr Winter" is credited with influencing the modern
image of Santa Claus

 

For years now, traditional German Christians – not just Protestants, who grew up with the Christkindl tradition, but more and more Catholics too – have been fighting Santa’s encroachment on “the true spirit of Christmas” and their conception of the original Saint Nicholas. They are obsessed with the notion that the modern-day image of St. Nick was invented by the advertising department of the Coca-Cola Company in 1931 in order to sell more of their tooth-rotting product to children in its annual Christmas campaign. In fact, the image of the Weihnachtsmann was already well established under the Kaiser, as contemporary Christmas cards and decorations prove, but since when have facts mattered when it comes to matters of faith?

 

In 1998, a group of Austrian activists founded the organization “Pro-Christkind.org.” Their goal is “to promote the original meaning and character of Advent and Christmas… Some [of us] are concerned that the biggest birthday party of the year is being celebrated without the birthday child Himself. Others are primarily concerned with preserving the rich Advent and Christmas culture in our region as part of the cultural diversity on our planet.” The organization rejects “an Advent and Christmas season where only money counts and stress rules. The Weihnachtsmann, shaped by Coca-Cola, is a symbol of that.” The anti-Santa group first advertised its cause with a crossed-out Santa. In 2004 they shifted to a less provocative symbol: a traditional Christmas cookie in the shape of the Star of Bethlehem.

 

Last year, eight Austrian communities officially joined the movement, and the Christmas market in the town of St. Wolfgang formally banned any depictions of Santa from the event.

 

Activists from the youth organization of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union party have gone a step further and are demanding “Santa-free zones” in their towns. As Young Union secretary Margit Munk puts it, "We must ensure that the stories and legends of Saint Nicholas remain present in the heads of our children and of adults and are not forgotten. These wonderful memories and encounters with Saint Nicholas and the Christ Child must continue to be told - so that these traditional figures will not die and be replaced by the Weihnachtsmann."

 

Gegen den Weihnachtsmann 
"AGAINST Santa -
FOR Nicholas."
A campaign poster put out by the Young Union in Günzburg

 

The German Catholic organization Bonifatiuswerk has launched a nationwide campaign to ship Santa back to the North Pole where he belongs.

 

The organization has managed to attract numerous celebrities to its cause. TV journalist Peter Hahne puts down the man in red by appealing to his audience’s bad conscience: “Selflessness, love of one’s neighbor, solidarity, gift-giving and sharing – those are the values that I associate with [the genuine] Saint Nicholas. Nicholas clears the way to God. Even today he can still teach us that giving doesn’t make us poorer, it makes us richer! And: One good deed leads to other good deeds.”

 

Catholic psychiatrist and author Manfred Lütz takes a more social-welfare perspective and denounces the presence of costumed Santas in the streets: “It is a violation of human dignity to coerce pitiful human beings to run around as red and white Christmas idiots.”

 

On December 11, Catholic Vicar General Alfons Hardt convened an anti-Santa demonstration in Paderborn to denounce the annual arrival of the Coca-Cola truck. “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus!” he proclaimed on the cathedral square, presumably driving thousands of local children to despair. On this occasion the Bonifatiuswerk also called for a general Coke boycott, citing the company’s spotty human rights record around the world.

 

It’s easy to understand why many people are turned off by all the crass commercialism and reject the whitewashing of what was once a vibrant and varied Christmas tradition. I understand where they’re coming from, although I can’t help but suspect the imagined erosion of the holiday season has much more to do with internal transformations in European society and spirituality than with a targeted campaign of anti-God subversion by sinister American business executives. It's simply too late to go back to 1914. But will the grinchy dump Santa campaign really lead ordinary citizens back to the question-begging “true spirit of Christmas”? “It probably won’t work,” a Christian initiative called bischof-nikolaus.net concedes,

 

because too many people have already moved too far away from their Christian roots… Nicholas will prevail in the end, but of course only if we make an effort and offer his message of humanity to people convincingly and not by grumbling and bellyaching about it. There are many paths leading to this goal. The one involving the chocolate Santas is only one of them…

Krampus 
If they get rid of Santa, could the dreaded
Austrian Krampus be next...?

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May I suggest a compromise to all these zealots? Since the white Dresdner Stollen is a metaphor of the Christkind in diapers, let us just keep both the Weihnachtsmann and the Dresdner Stollen! Thus, nobody will be forgot. (Weighing that, hmmm, there might actually be a pagan edge to eating the Christkind...)

Now, if there is one single import that some people (who really have nothing else to do) should actually unite against, then that's Halloween.
Actually, I love Halloween in principle, but not the commercial mess it has become. I also like the idea of a scary Christmas, with the Wild Night, the Perchten and the whole bit, but that's the subject of another post - maybe next year.

There's a movie about Perchten who go around murdering people in Bavaria - "Hinter Kaifeck," about the notorious and unsolved murders in Hinterkaifeck in 1922. The movie isn't very good, but the costumes are fantastic.
Fascinating post. I didn't know there was a ban on the man in red in Deutschland. Rated.
@Gary
Yes, I guess General Vicar Alfons Hardt has never watched "Miracle on 34th Street."
@Erica
They'd love a ban all right, but so far they've only captured eight towns in Austria. It ain't gonna happen!
"A corrupted version of this idea survives in American Christian lore in the person of “Kris Kringle,” which is now another name for Santa Claus."

Thank you for a great, instructive piece. I believe that the American perception of Santa Claus and meaning of Christmas is nothing more than a capitalist agenda which suffocates the imagination and budgets of young and old.

R♥
Alan, thanks for the great explanation of what Christmas means in the German speaking countries. I just got back from Munich, Salzburg and Vienna, where I observed the best custom of them all - standing in 30 degree weather, in the middle of some platz drinking "bowle mit schnaps" until you fall down.

At some point, no self-respecting German would give a rip about Sanct Nikolaus, Weihnachtsmann or Santa.
A few of those toddies makes all the problems of that sort go away, no?
@Fusun and TheFlylooper
A Resounding YES to you both!!
Another good piece. You're on a roll.
I guess the times they are a changing...But not the Krampus...