Munich and Christmas, part two … the German origins of Santa Claus
Forget Lapland or the North Pole. Santa Claus is German. To be precise, a Turkish-German emigrant to the US. But definitely German. Here’s how …
1. St. Nicholas’s Day
Today, 6th December, Munich celebrates the feast day of St. Nicholas, who is known in German as Sankt Nikolaus and Dutch as Sinterklaas. German and Dutch migrants to America in centuries past brought with them to the new world their traditional celebration of the saint, marked by the giving of presents to children. Their English-speaking fellow settlers adapted the practice, but struggled with the pronunciation of the name. It came out as “Santa Claus”. Later, the dates got mixed up and some of the rituals got shifted from St. Nicholas Day on 6th December to Christmas Day on the 25th, and Nicholas himself, like other successful emigrants to the States, put on a bit of weight, had his teeth fixed, jazzed up his dress sense and started bellowing “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
St. Nicholas was a 4th century Greek Orthodox bishop of Myrna (in modern day Turkey) who, according to tradition, saved a poor family from destitution and the terrible possibility of having to sell their children into slavery and prostitution, by dropping nuggets of gold down their chimney in wintertime (he wished to remain anonymous). The gold fell into stockings drying by the fire – hence the tradition of Christmas stockings. For this reason, he is the patron saint of both children and prostitutes. Traditionally, he was represented holding three nuggets, or apples, of gold, as in the statue to him in a side chapel of Munich’s Frauenkirche cathedral.
The feast day of St. Nicholas remains very important in Germany today. Children go to bed on the evening of the 5th in anticipation of the gifts awaiting them the next day … and in dread of the Krampus, Nicholas’s demonic sidekick who torments the bad kids as Nicholas rewards the good (He keeps a list. He checks it twice). The Krampus is the German forerunner of later sinister figures of Christmas chaos, from the Grinch to the Gremlins.
2. Wotan’s Day
St. Nicholas is not the only precursor to today’s Father Christmas, who is an amalgam of various figures stretching into the dim and mythic past. One of the most important is Odin, chief deity of the pagan pantheon of gods worshipped in pre-Christian Germany and Scandinavia, lord of Asgard and father of the thunder god, Thor. He was known in German and Saxon lands as Wotan, and has given his name to the middle day of the week in English (Wednesday – “Wotan’s Day”). His son gets the following day (Thursday – “Thor’s Day”; in German, Donnerstag – “Thunder Day”). Also known as the “Old Man of Winter”, Wotan was believed by ancient Germans to ride through the sky on a magical chariot at this time of year in order to distribute gifts and rewards to those who had been virtuous. Viewed in this light, the story of St. Nicholas is a Christian upgrade of concepts that had long existed in German cultural software.
3. Yankee Doodle Santy
Wotan, being an ancient Norse god who later re-trained as a saint after Christianity started running things, had always displayed a talent for re-invention. And, like many who like to move with the times, he eventually crossed the Atlantic in the great wave of German emigration to the USA in the 19th century. His travelling companion was the young Thomas Nast, born in Landau in Rheinland-Pfalz to a musician in the Bavarian army. Nast would become perhaps the most famous caricaturist and cartoonist in American history – the artist who created the elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party, and popularised the donkey as a symbol of the Democrats, and also the iconic image of Uncle Sam.
Like many German-Americans, he was passionately opposed to slavery (German-Americans were a major source of electoral support for Abraham Lincoln) and a strong advocate of the northern cause in the civil war. His contribution to the war effort was a series of propaganda images published in such magazines as Harper’s Weekly. Beginning at Christmas 1862 – a low point in the fortunes of war for the North – he sought to raise morale with a series of dramatic illustrations showing a distinctly Wotan-esque Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) distributing presents to Union troops – the virtuous who deserved to be rewarded, as Nast’s German cultural background had it. In these illustrations, Nast created the iconic image of Santa Claus we know today: a rotund and jolly man dressed in red and white and with a flowing white beard.
In other words, the image of Santa Claus that is fixed in the world’s imagination today began as American civil war propaganda from the pen of a southern German artist. Nast’s re-imagining of Santa Claus later went global after a hugely successful Coca Cola advertising campaign in the early 20th century – the red and white colour scheme was perfect for the purpose.
So that’s the story of Santa Claus. He’s German, he has changed his image more times than Madonna, and he probably doesn’t drink Pepsi.
Happy St. Nicholas’s Day
You can learn more about St. Nicholas and other German Christmas traditions on our Munich Christmas Markets tour – for details, click here.