In Germany, the “Christ Child” Prevails over Santa Claus
Once upon a time there was a saint named Nicholas, who performed many good deeds and loved to give gifts to the poor and needy. He seemed like a worthy individual to have a day named in his honor, and so the day of his death, December 6, was chosen to remember his life. Dressed in the regalia of a bishop, complete with tall hat and staff, he was the bearer of gifts and beloved by all children. But along came history and Martin Luther, who did not want a Catholic saint bringing gifts to the Protestant children of Germany. He devised the story of the “Christkind”, an angel who magically, without ever being seen, delivers presents to the children of the German-speaking world on Christmas Eve. The Dutch, however, remained loyal to their “Sinterklaas”, so much so that they took their version of St. Nicholas with them when they emigrated to the United States. The legend goes that Coca Cola needed a way to sell more soda pop in the wintertime, traditionally a slow sales period for the soft drink industry, and hence adopted the Dutch “Sinterklaas” for it own purposes, turning him into “Santa Claus.” (Check out the truth or fiction factor on this myth at snopes.com.) In any case, Santa Claus became immensely popular and soon made his way back across the Atlantic to reconquer the hearts of European children. In Germany, he became the “Weihnachtsmann”, the “Christmas Man,” particularly in the northern part of the country. Fairly quickly, however, he 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 Zone” 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.
Clearly, the battle lines are drawn, but fortunately the battle has not degraded into a smear campaign so far. The Bonifatiuswerk explicitly calls for a fair fight, but I still feel for the German children of today, who may be caught up in this epic battle if their parents choose to take sides, and I get the uneasy feeling that the “Great German Christmas Debate” detracts as much from the purpose of Christmas as the commercialism that is its major bone of contention. It also makes me yearn for those less-complicated times half a century ago when the living room door was locked on Christmas Eve and the Christkind magically deposited gifts for the good little boys and girls. The details didn’t really matter, but the spirit of love and giving did and should still be the overriding purpose of Christmas, no matter which side we take in the “Great Christmas Debate.”
News report about Fluorn-Winzeln’s “weihnachtsmannfreie Zone” (in German):
For more information about the history of Christmas in Germany and German Christmas traditions, visit the virtual copy of the German Christmas museum (only available in German).