When it comes to Christmas, no one does it better than the Germanic countries. The holiday as we know it was practically invented there. Before Northern Europe was Christianized, the twelve days of Christmas were the twelve days of Yule, a feast celebrating the winter solstice and the Nordic gods.
The Christmas tree tradition started in Germany, was spread by German emigrants around the world, and became mainstream in 1848 when The Illustrated London News published a drawing of Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, standing around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.
Saint Nicholas might have been a 4th century Greek bishop, but the name Santa Clauscomes to us by way of a Dutch nickname for him, Sinterklaas. And the standardized look, paraphernalia, and personality of the modern Santa Claus (often mistakenly attributed to Coca-Cola) was actually canonized over the second half of the 19th century, mostly by Thomas Nast, an illustrator and German immigrant working forHarper’s Weekly. Even the nickname Kris Kringle comes from the German,Christkindl. Christkindl means “Christ child.” As to why one of Santa Claus’ nicknames would be Christ Child, that’s something we’ll touch on a little bit later.
The German-speaking countries also have some Christmas traditions that we in America don’t enjoy at all. For starters, the season is longer and there are more days of Christmas in Germany. The Christmas markets open in late November, and then they have Saint Nicholas Day on the 6th of December at which point the children get candy, nuts, small presents, etc. Then comes Christmas Eve, and instead of waiting until the morning of the 25th, they tear into their presents right then and there on the evening of the 24th, no longer capable of restraining their gift greed after a month of yuletide anticipation. They’re not really gaming the system in the long run, of course, any more than you could make your blanket bigger by cutting off one end of it and sewing it onto the other. The math works out the same if you’ve always been in the Germanic system- 365.25 days from one Christmas loot to the next, but if you jump from the Anglo system one year into the Germanic system the next, you shave that time right down to 364.75 days, a pretty significant one-time incentive to move to Germany, and a big reason to never go back.
But it doesn’t stop with the early gift exchange. The 25th is still Christmas, of course, even if the presents are already open and wrapping paper is strewn about the floor, and then they celebrate 2nd Christmas on the 26th. Yes. 2nd Christmas. A bonus day, if you will. I didn’t believe it either the first time I heard it. It’s like losing your virginity to your high school sweetheart in a dewy meadow underneath a full moon on prom night and then somehow doing it again the next day.
In summary, that’s St. Nicholas Day on the 6th of December, plus Christmas Eve and two days of Christmas. But the madness doesn’t even stop there. After Christmas, after the fat and happy week between the years, after the drunken revelry of New Year’s Eve and the hangover recovery on New Year’s Day, just when you think there’s nothing left to live for and all the good times are behind you for the foreseeable future, Three Kings Day strikes on the 6th of January. Yes, after a short break for the New Years celebration, the Christmas spirit has inexplicably returned, this time to commemorate the magi who followed the star to Jesus, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It’s like getting a callback from a Broadway musical you tried out for fifteen years ago- equal parts delight and what-the-fuck?
On account of all the extra days, the Germanic Christmas also needs some extra characters. On Saint Nicholas Day for example, it’s not just Saint Nicholas who shows up overnight to place candy into well-polished shoes placed by the door. Whether Knecht Ruprecht, Klaubauf, or the Krampus, every Germanic tradition has an anti-Nicholas to punish the bad children. Here in the U.S. we merely threaten naughty children with a lump of coal in their stocking. Granted, coal prices are in the gutter at the moment, but is that really a threat? Is that the worst that could befall someone; receiving the practical gift of fossil fuel? The naughty child could burn the coal to keep warm on a winter’s night. Maybe the naughty child already has a steam engine constructed and hidden under the bed, just waiting for that precious lump of coal. Sounds like a pretty nice gift to me under the right circumstances. What’s worse, coal could also be used for any number of nefarious purposes- exactly what a disappointed naughty boy or girl would be looking to do after finding the coal in their stocking. You could ignite the coal with a magnifying glass and then throw the smoldering lump into a hamper full of dirty clothes. You could smear the coal dust all over your mother’s things or use it to write on the white living room walls. Coal is a bad gift for bad children.
Having Saint Nicholas come on the 6th of December is sort of like having Romeo and Juliet commit suicide in the first act. It threatens to be anti-climatic. And this is really the only place where the German Christmas falters.
In some parts of Germany (the Northern and Eastern parts mostly) a figure called the Weihnachtsmann delivers the presents on Christmas Eve. Most Germans will insist that the “Christmas Man” isn’t the same as the American Santa. And we’re all very impressed by your cultural independence, Germany. Who’s a big boy? Who’s a big boy? You’re a big boy, and you can do culture all by yourself. Yes you can! Yes you can! But if you put out a wanted poster for the Christmas Man, Santa would get picked up.
And here’s the problem with Germany’s counterfeit Santa- because the Christmas Man is just Santa Claus with a German accent, and Santa Claus, as we learned earlier, is merely the Dutch nickname for Saint Nicholas, that means that by the transitive property of Santas, the Christmas Man and Saint Nicolas are indeed the same person. But Saint Nicolas already came on the 6th December. And then for Christmas Eve he just kind of… shows up again 19 days later with a different, less imaginative name and a slightly different but still easily recognizable suit. Santa Claus can obviously carry a lot in that sleigh, but even Santa can’t carry the narrative weight of two related but separate holidays. And then there’s the chronological discontinuity of it all. It would be like if a retro Easter Bunny from the 1930s played a central role in the Valentine’s Day festivities and then three weeks later he came back for Easter with slightly more modern stylings and a pseudonym. There aren’t really that many holiday mascots, and the human imagination is virtually unlimited; is there really ever a good reason why we’d have to use the same character more than once? I mean, Batman is a great character without his own holiday, why not let him do Christmas? He’s got various vehicles for gift delivery. He’s got plenty of money to buy the gifts. He could fight crime along the way, ensuring that everyone has a safe and secure holiday season.
If this whole “Christmas Man” thing seems a little ad hoc and contrived, that’s because it is. In the Middle Ages, presents were only given on the 6th, and Saint Nicolas was the only one who brought them. On Christmas Eve you went to mass, then came home, sat in the dark, and thought about how great it would be if someone would just go ahead and discover electricity already.
But Martin Luther didn’t like Saint Nicolas. In fact, Martin Luther didn’t like any of the saints, because Martin Luther was busy founding Protestantism. He thought it would be a better idea if we all just forgot about Saint Nicolas, and exchanged presents on Christmas instead of December 6th. And who better to bring these presents than the star of the show himself, the baby Jesus? And thus the Christkindl or Christ Child was born. Of course ultimately people didn’t replace Saint Nicholas or the December 6th holiday, they just augmented it. And if you weren’t a fan of Luther’s Christkindl for whatever reason, then you needed yet another character for the second day of gift giving, and that second slot would eventually be filled by the ill-conceived Christmas Man.
Unfortunately, Martin Luther never really bothered to make up a backstory for Christkindl, nor are the mechanics of the whole system really explained. First off, on a purely motivational level, why would the baby Jesus want to give out gifts on his own birthday? That’s not a thing people do. People don’t give out gifts on their birthdays, they receive them. The whole premise lacks a certain verisimilitude. Sure, eventually this baby will grow up into a selfless adult and personify self-sacrifice by giving up his life to save the entire world from its sins, but all of that comes later. Christmas is baby Jesus’ me-time. The baby Jesus of the Bible sits back and takes it easy in the manger. He lets kings on camels cross deserts to bring him luxurious presents. You expect me to believe that this same, laze-the-day-away baby suddenly wants to rush around to every child in the world’s house giving away presents every Christmas Eve? It’s out of character. And speaking of rushing around with presents, just how exactly is a baby supposed to do that? Santa is a grown man with a sack, a transportation mechanism, and an entry point into the home. Christkindl can’t carry shit. He can’t open doors. He can’t even support the weight of his own head. He’s still got fontanelles for Christ’s sake. And where does Christkindl spend the other 364 days of the year?
I know where Santa is. I know who helps him make the toys. I know who pulls his sleigh and I see his cookie crumbs and half-drunk milk the next morning. Christkindl’s got no backstory, no mechanism, no motivation, and no evidence. It’s like Martin Luther phoned the whole thing in while he was busy doing more important things such as composing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God or writing On the Jews and Their Lies.
Oh, and there’s one last problem with the Christ Child. She’s not Christ, or a child. She’s a young female angel in a costume that seems to suggest galactic empress more than Jesus in a manger. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the crown is ab- so- lute- ly faaaaaabulous, but the misnomer just takes an already tenuous mythology and makes it that much more inexplicable.
Just what exactly are you driving at, Christkindl? Why do you call yourself the Christ Child when you are neither the Christ nor a child? Do you ever mumble something about a gun show and then flex your wings, referring to one as Donner and the other as Blitzen after gently kissing each in turn? I can’t commit to a Christmas character until I’ve got more biographical info.
Original post + 80 other letters from the last 6 years at http://www.sebastianbraff.com/2016/01/dear-christkindl.html