As a child and even today, my favorite image of Christmas is “Santa Claus”. Who would not love a figure that brings you gifts, right? Before moving to Germany, I never really gave much thought into the origin of Santa Claus, or why he had so many names (e.g., St. Nick, St. Nicolas, Kris Kringle, etc.). But, like most traditional aspects of Christmas that we Americans enjoy, our origin of Santa Claus can be traced back to Germany and other regions in Europe.
Now, I’m not going to bore you to death regarding all the historical facts and differences related to St. Nicolas. Nor is this post about the regional differences across Germany for St. Nicolas. But, rather since this will be posted on the 5th of December on the eve of St. Nicolas Day in Germany, I thought I would provide just a quick summary of of the origins to some of the Christmas traditions celebrated in the US. (reference Wikipedia for all the details).
Tomorrow is December 6th, which in Germany is the holiday Saint Nicolas Day (origin of the name St. Nick, Santa Claus). A fest in honor of the patron Saint of children, sailors, and merchants. Interesting fact – Saint Nicolas was from Turkey. This is how St. Nick became associated to Christmas, and traditions started to where gifts were given to children on Dec 6th by St. Nicolas. Today, on the evening of the 5th, boots are placed outside the front door for St. Nicolas to fill with sweets if the children were good and a stick if they were bad (origin of hanging stockings). Different areas of Germany/Europe have variations for St. Nicolas, like one that has him riding a donkey through the town and is accompanied by helpers that are devil-like creatures called Krampus (origin of elves).
Martin Luther as part of the Protestant Reformation did not want to associate any holidays to Saints, and moved the celebration to December 24/25 and associated Christmas with the birth of Christ, and said that instead of St. Nicholas, the Christkindl (Christ Child – Americanized Kris Kringle) will bring gifts. Christkindl later became represented as a female winged angel that gave the gifts (origin of Christmas tree angel) because children could not understand how a baby brought gifts.
Fascinating to see the origins of how Christmas is celebrated in the US, being heavily influenced by the European immigrants and their customs that are still in place today.