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Father Christmas, Le Pere Noel, Papa Noel, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Belsnickle, the Rumpliche Mann, the Weihnachtsmann, - Are We Talking Santa Claus Here?

Monday 19 December 2016 at 01:00 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 15, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Why do people love the Christmas season so much? Even Catholics and Lutherans, who are supposed to hold Easter in higher regard than Christmas, love the season the best. I must confess that I love the Christmas season the best. And I don’t think it’s mostly the colored lights, the tinsel, the toys, the candy and cookies, the Santa parades, etc., -- no, there is something deeper than that. It’s an indefinable spirit that is seen and felt everywhere, a spirit of hope, peace, joy, and love, a spirit of good will that could easily be called Christ-like. There’s a feeling of cheerfulness, joy, lightheartedness, kindness, well-being, and goodness you don’t feel the rest of the year.

            In that special joyful feeling, in which, for Christians, is contained the true reason for the season, that is, the birth of the Savior of humankind. This may not be true for non-Christians, but even they begin to sense the spirit of Christmas. From the earliest part of the Christian era, this wonderful feeling has been expressed by personifying the Christmas spirit. In the early, early Medieval era, England personified this spirit with a man known as Father Christmas. In France, he was known as “Le Pere Noel;” in Germany he was known as the “Weihnachstmann” (the Christmas Man); and later, in the Cajun culture in New Orleans, “Papa Noel” (Christmas Dad).

            A similar type being was known as “Belsnickle” in the Netherlands, and the “Rumpliche Mann” in Wendish culture in Germany (and later, in Texas). The origin of some of these versions of a Christmas man can be traced back to ancient pagan beliefs that became blended with Christian beliefs.

            While these mythical characters grew out of folk celebrations and legends, another “Christmas man” was factual and came right out of history, -- I’m talking about Saint Nicholas. He was a real priest who became the Bishop of Myra (today, near modern Finike, Turkey). He was a real person, born to a wealthy family in Patara, Lycia. When his parents died, he inherited an enormous amount of money, which he used to help needy people. Those are the bare facts about Nicholas, -- the stories about him are so mixed with legend that we have no idea of what is factual and what is legend.

            The word “Santa Claus” is obviously a dialect version of “Saint Nicholas.” Nicholas, like Santa Claus in modern illustrations of him, did indeed wear red garments, because he was a bishop, and in cold winter, his garb would have been embellished with white fur. No doubt, many of the stories about the beloved saint’s generosity are true, though the legends have exaggerated them. Apparently, he did give candy and nuts and fruit to poor children, along with using his fortune to help needy adults. His day on the Church Calendar is December 6, and many Catholic children celebrate him on December 6, separately from Santa Claus on December 25.

            When you read about the lives of the Saints, it’s hard to find one that exemplifies this kind, generous, caring, joyful “spirit of Christmas” I’ve been talking about than Bishop Nicholas. And over the centuries, he has blended with all these other stories, myths, and legends about the personification of Christmas and emerged as our modern-day “Santa.”

            There is one more spirit-of-Christmas story to add to the mix, however. It has been said that after the Reformation, Martin Luther discouraged the veneration and celebration of the Roman Catholic Saints. At the same time, German children in Saxony, like children all over Eastern Europe, celebrated the bringing of gifts by Sankt Nikolaus on December 6. To discourage this, some say, he introduced the tradition of gifts being brought to children at Christmas by the “Christ Kind” (Christ Child) or the “Krist Kindl” (in the Dutch language). The gifts at Christmas came from the Christ Kind or Krist Kindl rather than from St. Nicholas. I don’t know how well the tradition caught on, because the Saxon Lutherans still loved their Sankt Nikolaus.

            The Santa Claus synthesis continued in that “Krist Kindl” evolved into “Kris Kringle,” yet another name for “Santa Claus.” The older Kris Kringle stories are hard to dig up, but in modern times, a movie about Kris Kringle, came out in 1947 and another in 1994. The 1947 movie, which I saw, was entitled “Miracle on 34th Street,” and the main character, Kris Kringle, was a hired Santa Claus for a major department store. The point of the movie was that the spirit of Christmas really exists.

            Of course it does! How else can you explain the way we feel and act at Christmastime? That’s why we get a lump in our throat when we watch Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus in the Christmas Pageant at our church. Our Christ has come to Bethlehem!


             Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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