The Giving of Gifts

Johann Baptist Sonderland (1805-1878): Holy Christ. Print (from a copper engraving), Art Collection Veste Coburg
Johann Baptist Sonderland (1805-1878): Holy Christ. Print (from a copper engraving), Art Collection Veste Coburg

Saint Nicholas
The marriage between the Emperor Otto II and the Greek Theophanu made the adoration of Saint Nicholas spread from Byzanz to Germany. From the 11th Century onward, the Saint has been honored here and has achieved an immense popularity. More than 2,000 churches have been dedicated to him in the Western world. In his figure, two legendary personalities are mixed, one Nicholas, Bishop of Myra of the 4th Century, and the other Abbot Nikolas of Sion, who was 200 years younger.

It is said that the Bishop gave gold to the three daughters of a poor nobleman as a dowry. This makes Nicholas a gift-giver. On the other hand, the Abbot turned out to be miraculous. He revived three students that had been killed by a criminal landlord. Thus, Nicholas has been considered to be a heavenly friend of the children.

Nicholas is not the only gift giver; he shares his job with the infant Christ (Kris Kringle). The reformer Martin Luther knew and accepted them both. In his refusal to worship saints – Nicholas was dedicated by the Roman Catholic Church to be the “hyperhagios,” a kind of super saint – Luther favored the strengthening of the position of the Infant Christ and called him “Holy Christ.” But people stuck with the name “Kris Kringle,” who is not the baby in the cradle but an angel-like person, both young and ageless, like the one in Christmas processions and Miracle plays.

Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871): Mr. Winter. “Mu?nchner Bilderbogen” 1847, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich. This illustration in the Christmas Edition of the “Mu?nchner Bilderbogen” has been forming fundamentally the type of Santa Claus.
Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871): Mr. Winter. “Mu?nchner Bilderbogen” 1847, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich. This illustration in the Christmas Edition of the “Mu?nchner Bilderbogen” has been forming fundamentally the type of Santa Claus.

Father Christmas
This Father Christmas is no longer a church dignitary but a kind old man. The figure is not really new, but it is comparable to a secular Nicholas: a bearded old man with a long coat trudging through the snow holding a little fir tree in his hand. The picture made by the artist Moritz von Schwind may have served as a prototype for “Father Christmas.” As traditions have been mixing, he gets “Knecht Ruprecht” as his servant in many Protestant areas.

In the late 1800s, the paper maché industry in the Sonneberg area made Father Christmas or Santa Claus the most popular candy container, and it has since been exported in many thousands of types.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902), Illustration of Santa Claus, around 1862, Harper’s Illustrated Weekly
Thomas Nast (1840-1902), Illustration of Santa Claus, around 1862, Harper’s Illustrated Weekly

Sinter Claas has Become Santa Claus
The biggest consumer market for paper maché Santas and boots has become the United States. The figure of Nicholas might have become popular in the melting pot of America through the Dutch Sinter Claas. This is why he has been called Santa Claus. It was at the beginning of the 19th Century in New Amsterdam, in the State of New York, that Dutch children got presents on the 6th of December, an idea that greatly pleased New Yorkers. Soon, Santa Claus was no longer appreciated as a church Saint, but has been melded with Sinter Claas to become a warm yet even jolly personality, being everybody’s darling, no matter what religion.

The first 19th Century writer in New England publishing about Santa and spreading the legends by a literary circle was the American Washington Irving. In the following years, the habit of giving gifts on Saint Nicholas Eve was postponed until Christmas Eve, when Santa came by night through the chimney to fill children’s stockings.

From 1862 on, Thomas Nast, who immigrated with his parents at the age of 6 from Landau/Pfalz, published uncountable pictures of Santa Claus during his 24 years of work as an illustrator and political caricaturist for Harper´s Illustrated Weekly.