St. Nicholas – His Legend and His Role in the Christmas Celebration and Other Popular Customs (By George H. McKnight, 1917) – Chapter 1

PREFACE

A few years ago, while trying to trace the history of certain Christmas customs, I was unavoidably brought into contact with St. Nicholas. A closer acquaintance with that amiable personality was the result, and acquaintance gradually deepened into veneration and affection. In the same year in which began my closer acquaintance with St. Nicholas, I was so fortunate as to be brought face to face with some of the quaint pictures in which Italian painters, with so much charm, have represented the various episodes in the life of the saint. I was led to believe that others would enjoy the pictures, not all of them readily accessible, and that a wider knowledge of St. Nicholas would greatly enlarge the circle of his friends. The present book was the result.

My aim has been, not to offer an exhaustive study of all the difficult questions that are connected with the name of St. Nicholas, but to bring together, from somewhat scattered sources, the elements in his life story. The kindly acts recorded of him have lived in popular memory and have flowered into some of the most generally cherished of popular customs. In St. Nicholas the reader will come in contact with a personality of unique amiability, whose influence has permeated popular customs for many centuries and has contributed much of sweetness to human life.

My original contribution to the subject has been slight. In the notes I have attempted to indicate my indebtedness to other writers, although the amount of this debt I have not been able adequately to show. To the artists who have represented with feeling and with charm the scenes in the life of St. Nicholas, this book is most indebted, and for them I wish to bespeak a major part of the reader’s attention.

G. da Fabriano. St. Nicholas with Conventional Emblems along with Mary Magdalene, St. John, and St. George.

CHAPTER I
ST. NICHOLAS, SANTA CLAUS, AND KRIS KRINGLE

The good St. Nicholas, the bishop-saint, is strangely little known in America. He has lent his name to a church here and there and to a popular magazine for children, his protégés. But how many people are familiar with the story of his life? How many even know the date of his own special festival? There are countries in which his memory is not thus neglected, in which the festival of St. Nicholas is one of the important events of the year. An English newspaper of the first year of the war has this to report concerning the Belgian custom:

The feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, was celebrated at the Belgian refugee camp at Earle’s Court, England, with presents for the children, stockings hung up, a Christmas tree, and all the rest of the children’s festivities which we associate with Christmas eve and Christmas morning. This was not a mere anticipation of Christmas. St. Nicholas’ day, and not Christmas, is the children’s festival in Holland, Belgium, and parts of Germany, and we have borrowed the hanging up of stockings from them and turned it into a Christmas custom.

Letters from Belgian children, exiled in France for more than two years, offer further evidence of the intimate and friendly relationship existing between St. Nicholas and his Belgian children. Here is a touching passage from a letter written by a little eight-year-old Belgian girl from Varengeville-sur-Mer, in France, to an American “godmother”; the adult English used in translation fails to reproduce the naïve charm of the original.

We have just had a grand visit from St. Nicholas. He came in person to bring us some nice things as he used to do when we were home. We were playing when, all at once, we heard singing at one side and saw a bishop, ringing a bell. What joy, it is St. Nicholas! We kneeled down to receive his blessing, and then sang a song and went into the house. St. Nicholas talked to us and, best of all, he gave us some presents. He gave us an orange, a barley sweet, a cake, and some games. My, how happy we were!

Germaine Barbez.
Le 16 dec., 1916.

Another little girl, a little older, writes from the same place of ‘how the “grand Saint Nicholas” has gone out of his way to come to see the Belgian children on December sixth, and how he delivered admonitions to various boys and girls but did not fail to distribute among them dainties much appreciated by all, big and little.’

The importance of St. Nicholas in Belgian life is evident. His festival day too, the celebration of which is so deeply rooted as not to lose its life in an atmosphere of exile and painful memory, has continued to hold an important place in the year’s life not only of Belgium but, as remains to be seen, of Holland. At one time the celebration of St. Nicholas’ day seems to have been general in most of western Europe. There is plentiful record of the earlier popularity of this celebration in all the southern and western parts of the countries occupied by the peoples speaking the Teutonic languages. It can be traced from Holland and Belgium, through eastern France, the Rhine provinces, Luxembourg, Alsace and Lorraine, through Switzerland, both French and German, as far east as the Tyrol and Salzburg, including on the way Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria, in German. In northern Germany, Protestantism, with its aversion to saint worship, was hostile to the St. Nicholas celebration. Also the growing concentration on Christmas day of the different winter popular celebrations, and especially the rapid rise in importance, during the last two centuries, of the Christmas tree, have caused the St. Nicholas customs, in many places, to be absorbed into the Christmas celebration, in other places, to go quite out of use. But popular customs seem to be to some extent affected by political boundaries, and in two of the smaller countries of western Europe, Belgium and Holland, the St. Nicholas customs still retain much of their earlier vigor.

In Belgium, St. Nicholas has long been among the most venerated of saints, hardly second to St. Martin. In the whole country there are one hundred and six churches in his honor.Besides he is the patron saint of many trades and crafts, for example, of the boatmen in cities on the Meuse, of sawyers, dyers, turners, and haberdashers at Bruges, of seedmen, packers, and coopers at Liège, of haberdashers and mercers at Malines. But above all he is the protector and the corrector of children.

The children’s festival at Christmas time does not exist in Belgium. The grand réveillon, the great Christmas feast of southern France, which leads children to call Christmas the “day when one eats so much,” the English Christmas, with its life and gayety and open hospitality, have nothing corresponding at Christmas time in Belgium, where the celebration of Christmas is confined almost entirely to services in the church. In place of the Christmas gayeties of other countries, Belgium has its St. Nicholas festival. St. Nicholas’ day throughout the whole country is a day of joy, especially for the young. Even the German Christmas tree, which has been gradually finding its way into Belgium, is introduced not on Christmas day, but on December 6th, the day devoted to the honor of the popular saint.

A writer of about fifty years back thus describes the joyous celebration of St. Nicholas’ day by Belgian children of that time. “Weeks beforehand, children full of impatience, before going to sleep ask: ‘How many times must I go to sleep before he comes?’ They sing to him as soon as it is dark, and they see him in their dreams, giving them gifts or punishment, according as they have been good or naughty. Occasionally they are made happy by a little gift that comes down the chimney into a pinafore hung up to receive it, or is found accidentally in the corner of the room. A joyful ‘Thank you, Saint Nicholas’ greets each such gift. Each evening every corner of the room is searched, and the children sing with fervor their petition, one Flemish version of which begins:

‘Sint Niklaes, Gods heilge man,Doe uwen besten tabbaerd aen,En rydt er mee naer spanjeOm appelen van OranjeOm peeren van den boom.’”

In one of the versions of this children’s song the supplication is addressed to “Sinte Niklaes van Tolentyn,” a saint quite distinct from Saint Nicholas of Bari, the recognized patron of children, but the heavenly postal arrangements seem to be effectively organized, for, so far as known, the wrong address used, in no way prevents the desired response from their special protector and friend.

On the eve of his festival day, St. Nicholas makes his tour, visiting palace and cottage. Frequently in the early evening he makes a preliminary visit in bishop’s robes, with pastoral staff and miter, at each house making inquiries concerning the conduct of the children, giving appropriate praise or warning, and promising on the following morning to give more substantial reward. When he is gone, the children place receptacles for the gifts which St. Nicholas is expected to let fall down the chimney. The receptacle varies in different places. Sometimes shoes are neatly polished for the purpose, at other times plates or baskets or stockings or specially made shoes of porcelain are set on the bed, in the open chimney, before the door of a room, or merely in the corner of a room. St. Nicholas’ steed, variously conceived of as gray horse or white ass, is not forgotten. For him the children put water and hay or carrot or potato peeling or piece of bread, in the shoe or basket or stocking. In the morning, from the tipped-over chairs and general disarray in the room, it is evident that St. Nicholas has been present. Replacing the oats or hay or carrot are found sweets and playthings for children that have been good, obedient, and studious during the year. In the case of bad children, rods are left, and the fodder is untouched.

A recent writer has given a highly interesting account of the similar celebration at the present day in Holland, where St. Nicholas’ day has the same importance as in Belgium.

St. Nicholas’ eve is a time of great importance to children because at that time they receive a visit from the saint, and his arrival is looked forward to with trembling. A large white sheet is placed on the floor in the middle of the room, and the children stand about anxiously watching the slow movement of the hands of the clock. In the meantime some of the elder members of the family dress up so as to represent St. Nicholas and his black servant. At five minutes before the expected time, for St. Nicholas generally announces at what time he may be expected, they sing songs asking him to give liberally as is his wont, and praising his greatness and goodness in eloquent terms. The first intimation of his arrival is a shower of sweets on the sheet spread on the floor. Then, amid the ensuing scramble, St. Nicholas appears in full bishop’s vestments, laden with presents, while in the rear comes his black servant with an open sack in one hand, for naughty boys and girls, and in the other a rod which he shakes vigorously from time to time. St. Nicholas usually knows the shortcomings of individual children, and on his departure gives each an appropriate lecture, promising to return later. Sometimes he makes the children repeat a verse to him or asks about their lessons.

The mysterious events of the ensuing night closely parallel those recorded for Belgium. St. Nicholas’ robe, his “beste tabbaerd,” enables him to pass from place to place instantaneously. But in his nightly journey over the roofs of houses, he uses a horse which the children of Holland, like those of Belgium, remember by leaving a wisp of hay for his use. If, for some reason, on account of lack of time or of money, the parents have neglected to buy gifts, the children say, “St. Nicholas’ horse has glass legs; he has slipped down and broken his foot.”

But the joys of St. Nicholas’ eve in Holland are not confined to children. It is a time, like the Christmas season in England, for family reunions and the renewal of old memories, also for the giving of presents. But the manner of the Dutch gift-giving has its distinctive features, for:

St. Nicholas’ presents must be hidden and disguised as much as possible and be accompanied by rhymes explaining what the gift is, and for whom St. Nicholas intended it. Sometimes a parcel addressed to one person will finally turn out to be for quite a different member of the family from the one who first received it. For the address on each wrapper in various stages of wrapping, makes it necessary for the parcel to change hands as many times as there are papers to undo. Tiniest things are sent in immense packing cases. Sometimes the gifts are baked in a loaf of bread or hidden in a turf. The longer it takes to find the present, the greater the surprise.

Great delight is taken in concealing the identity of the giver as long as possible. Even if the gift comes from a member of the same household, before the parcel is brought in, the doorbell is rung by a servant in order to create the impression that the parcel has come from an outsider. For the same purpose a parcel for a friend’s house is often entrusted to a passer-by.

On the evening of the celebration, after St. Nicholas has said his adieux, promising to come again, the children are packed away to bed, and the older people have their special amusement. They sit about a table in the middle of the room and partake of tea and “speculaas,” a spice cake bearing a great picture of St. Nicholas, until their own surprises begin to arrive. When this part of the program is over, about ten o’clock, the room is cleared; the dust sheet laid down for the children’s scramble, is removed, the papers, boxes, baskets, and the like, used in packing the presents, are cleared away. The table is spread with a white tablecloth, and when all have taken seats, a dish of boiled chestnuts, steaming hot, is brought in and eaten with butter and salt.

Belgium and Holland have their special forms of cakes and sweetmeats for the St. Nicholas season. In Holland these are the flat hard cakes called “Klaasjes” once made exclusively in the form of a bishop in honor of the bishop St. Nicholas, but now made in forms of every conceivable kind of beast, bird, or fish. In certain places on the Rhine the figure of the saint himself, the “Klasmann,” is baked in dough with currant eyes, or an especially palatable little horse is formed of honey cake dough and the “Klas” is inlaid on the horse. Then there is the “Letterbanket” made in the form of letters so that one may order his name in cake, and the “Marsepein,” now made in a great variety of forms, but formerly made only in heart-shaped sweets ornamented with little turtle doves made of pink sugar or with a flaming heart on a little altar. The “Marsepein” was formerly used as a device in wooing. The young man sent “Marsepein” with a “Vryer” of cake to the young lady of his heart, and if she accepted, he knew his cause was won.

There are also various accounts of the way the cakes are made. In Vorarlberg if, on the morning of St. Nicholas’ day, mist is seen to rise, one tells the children that St. Nicholas is baking his cakes, “Zelten” or “Klösse.” All the different figures found on the “Zelten” have been made by St. Nicholas’ ass stepping on them with his shoes. Another explanation of the origin of the cakes has more direct relation with the life story of the saint. The story is told that the three maidens rescued from shame by St. Nicholas—whose story remains to be told in a later chapter—at their marriage, out of gratitude, baked triple kneaded rolls and distributed them among poor children.

Outside the homes, the time about St. Nicholas’ day in Belgium and Holland is one of unusual life and gayety.

The old-time St. Nicholas fairs are no longer held in the streets, at any rate, not in the large towns of Holland, but exchange of presents is as universal as ever, and the shops are as festive in appearance as American shops at Christmas time. New attractions for children are offered each year. Life-sized figures of St. Nicholas are frequent in front of shop windows, and some establishments have a man dressed like the good saint, who goes about the streets mounted on a white steed, while behind him follows a cart laden with presents to be delivered. Crowds of children, singing, shouting, and clapping their hands, follow.

An older authority records concerning Belgium that often in country districts this or that peasant makes up as a long-bearded man or bishop and rides through the dark streets on a gray horse, or an ass, or a wooden horse, with a great basket at his side and a bundle of whips in his hand.

St. Nicholas in East Frisia.

Reproduced from Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Das festliche Jahr.

In no countries besides Belgium and Holland is the celebration of St. Nicholas’ day so widely prevalent to-day. But, as already remarked, in earlier times the celebration of St. Nicholas’ day was popular in many parts of Teutonic Europe, particularly in Austria, Switzerland, and southern Germany. In various parts of these countries the old St. Nicholas customs still maintain a vigorous existence. In Württemberg and Baden, children on St. Nicholas’ day receive gifts from their godparents. In Switzerland the gifts are brought by “Samiklaus,” in the Tyrol by the “Holy Man,” in lower Austria by “Niglo,” in Bohemia by “Nikolo.”At Ehingen on the Danube, it is the custom to keep tally on a stick of the number of prayers the children have said. The child that can show many tallies is favored by Santiklos. Before going to bed children place bowls under the bed and say the prayer:

“St. Nikolaus, leg mir ein,Was dein guter Will mag sein,Aepfel, Birnen, Nuss und KernEssen die kleinen Kinder gern.
(St. Nicholas put in for meWhat thy good will may be,Apple, pear, and good sweetmeat,Little children love to eat.)”

In the morning the bowls are found filled with the good things desired.

In various places in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, the saint, represented by some older member of the family, appears, or used to appear, in person, in bishop’s guise with staff and miter, and makes inquiry concerning the behavior of the children, and hears the children say their prayers. Before his coming the children have placed shoes in the garden behind a bush, and when after his departure they go out, they find the shoes filled with apples, nuts, and the like, if their conduct has been good. But in the case of ill-behaved children, the shoes are likely to be occupied by a whip.

In Italy a similar custom was formerly observed among people of higher social station. In the courts of princes, on St. Nicholas’ day, it was a custom to hide presents “in the shoes and slippers of persons whom it was desired to honor, in such manner as to surprise them when they came to dress. The custom was called Zopata from a Spanish word signifying a shoe.”

The function of St. Nicholas, it will have been observed, is a double one, to bring pleasing rewards to good children, but also to bring fear to children whose conduct has been bad. A Swiss dialect dictionary published in 1806, defines “Samiklaus” as a “gift such as parents make to their children through a disguised person named Samiklaus (corrupted from St. Nicholas) in order to give them pleasure and encourage them to duty and obedience or to frighten them through the strangely frightful make-up of the bogey man who accompanies the Samiklaus.” As a means of exciting fear in the ill-behaved children, the friendly bishop was often accompanied on his rounds by a children’s bugaboo, a frightful figure with horns, black face, fiery eyes, and long red tongue, variously called Klaubauf, Krampus, Rumpanz, and the like.

Further evidence of the earlier wider prevalence of St. Nicholas customs is afforded by the objections of seventeenth-century Protestant preachers, quoted in a later chapter, who opposed the attribution to St. Nicholas of gifts which, they asserted, came from the Christ Child alone. In objections such as these, is to be found one of the causes of the decay of distinctively St. Nicholas customs. Or perhaps we may better say, here is an explanation why customs that persisted, lost their association with the name of St. Nicholas. There is apparent Protestant objection to saint worship. There is also in evidence the rivalry of the celebration in honor of the birth of Christ which had received the name Christmas. The Christmas celebration was in its origin a church affair. Up to the fourteenth century the church had tried in vain to convert it into a popular festival. It employed all kinds of methods to attract the traditional customs and beliefs of the beginning of winter to the church festival. But only after the beliefs and practices earlier attached to Martinmas, to St. Andrew’s day, and to St. Nicholas’ day were brought into association with the birth of Christ, did the Christmas festival, after the end of the fourteenth century, become a genuinely popular occasion.

From this time on the customs distinctive of St. Nicholas’ day became more and more absorbed into the Christmas festival. At times St. Nicholas retains his association with the old customs, but the time is shifted from St. Nicholas’ day to Christmas time. In Catholic Nuremberg, for instance, at the end of the seventeenth century, the St. Nicholas gift-giving and the Christmas gift-giving customs were united, and the St. Nicholas customs made dependent on the Christmas customs. Children believed that St. Nicholas was the attendant of the Christ Child and was made to carry the wares basket at the Christmas market, and that St. Nicholas received sweetmeats as extras from the dealers. As Christmas time approached, these were put under the pillows of the children, who believed them to be the gifts of St. Nicholas.

In all north Germany, too, on Christmas eve, there goes about a bearded man covered with a great hide or with straw, who questions children and rewards their good conduct. His name varies with the locality. In many places he is called “Knecht Ruprecht,” a name probably going back to a pre-Christian time before St. Nicholas became associated with the children’s festival. In other places the man is called “De Hele Christ,” Holy Christ, who later becomes the central figure of all Christmas activities. In many of his names, however, such as “Rû Clås,” “Joseph Clås,” “Clåwes,” “Clås Bůr,” and “Bullerclås,” one will recognize the juvenile derivative from the name Nicholas. This figure often rides on a white horse. Not infrequently his relation to the Christmas festival proper needs to be made clear by the presence of the Holy Christ as a companion, represented by a maiden in white garb who hears the children say their prayers.

Saint Nicholas in the double rôle of children’s benefactor and children’s bugaboo found his way to America. Among the Pennsylvania Germans, or “Pennsylvania Dutch,” as they are more familiarly called, at least in the country districts, he continues to play his old part. “You’d better look out or Pelznickel will catch you,” is the threat held out over naughty children about Christmas time. The nickel in Pelznickel serves to show the relationship of this personage to St. Nicholas. Pelznickel is a Santa Claus with some variations. “On Christmas eve someone in the neighborhood impersonates Pelznickel by dressing up as an old man with a long white beard. Arming himself with a switch and carrying a bag of toys over his shoulder, he goes from house to house, where the children are expecting him.

“He asks the parents how the little ones have behaved themselves during the year. To each of those who have been good, he gives a present from his bag. But woe betide the naughty ones! These are not only supposed to get no presents, but Pelznickel catches them by the collar and playfully taps them with his switch.”

Eventually, in many places, St. Nicholas became quite excluded from the customs with which he was long associated. In Schleswig-Holstein, for instance, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the old customs were preserved but entirely separated from their earlier associations with St. Nicholas and St. Nicholas’ eve, and now connected with the story of the Christ Child and His festival, Christmas. The custom was for each child to borrow a plate or bowl from the kitchen and place this in an appointed room or in a window. On Christmas eve, when the tinkle of the bell summoned the children from the dark anteroom into the room with the festal decorations, then each child found what the Christ Child (“Kindjes”) had brought him. On the plates lay cakes, fruits, and playthings. Perhaps a rod was laid beside the other gifts, but it counted as the most severe punishment when the plate remained empty.

Christkindchen (Kris Kringle) and Hans Trapp in Alsace.

Reproduced from Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Das festliche Jahr.

Here and there also in the country, as late as 1865, there survived the similar custom, for the children, before going to bed, to place the plate before the window, for in the night the Christ Child took out a pane of glass and laid his gifts on the plate so that on Christmas morning it was evident that the “Kindjes” had been present. Here we see St. Nicholas quite deprived of his old prerogatives and his place taken by the “Christ Kindjes,” or as he was called in some places “Christ kindel,” from whose name, by a process of popular etymology, presumably was derived the name Kris Kringle.

In various parts of the United States where Dutch and German customs prevail, Kris Kringle appears in the combined rôle of the Christ Child and Santa Claus, and the vigil of his festival is called “Christ Kinkle eve.” In certain parts of Germany children sing, on Christmas eve:

“Christkindchen komm;Mach mich fromm;Dass ich zu dir im Himmel komm.”

In the principality of Waldeck down as late as 1830 there survived a popular Christmas mummers’ play custom originating in the sixteenth century and bringing in not only Christ and St. Nicholas but other personages grotesque in appearance, some of them survivals from folk celebrations antedating St. Nicholas customs. In the play appear Christ, Mary, an Angel, Peter, and Niklawes, all clad in white, and Hansruhbart, Brose, who bears the sack, and the shepherd Pamphilius with the noble steed, Zink. Hansruhbart and Brose are clad in pea straw and wear frightful masks. Pamphilius has suspended from a strap about his neck a box full of dirt with which he threatens to smear the children. Each person in turn is summoned to speak. As the chief offence in the case of children is reckoned the preference of small beer to coffee. Peter distributes the gifts, which the children receive only after they have been forgiven. He has a basket with apples and nuts, which he throws on a table for the children. As the children reach out for his gifts, he strikes them on the fingers with his rod.

Mumming pieces like this were popular all over Germany, the personages varying with the locality. Sometimes the Holy Christ went about alone, and before him the children presented themselves. But the most striking of all the personages in these plays was the one at Waldeck called Hansruhbart, elsewhere Ruprecht and Knecht Ruprecht, at his earliest recorded appearance called Acesto, probably a traditional figure that originated in customs that antedate Christianity.

In all this discussion of various customs associated with the name of St. Nicholas there will have been seen little to connect with the life story of a saintly person. The deeds of the children’s friend, St. Nicholas, to be sure exhibit beneficence, but the beneficence of a capricious, fairy-like benefactor rather than of a holy saint. In fact it is evident that the customs in question, in their origin, had little, if anything to do with St. Nicholas, and as they exist to-day show only in certain external features any relation with the life story of the kindly Eastern saint. This impression of the earlier independence of the popular customs in question from the story of St. Nicholas, is confirmed by the fact that many of them are associated with other names. St. Martin, as well as St. Nicholas, figures as a giver of gifts to children, especially in the Netherlands. At Antwerp and certain other cities, according to a report from a generation ago, on St. Martin’s day, as in the St. Nicholas’ day celebration already described, a man with bishop’s vestments and crosier appeared in the nurseries and made inquiries about the behavior of the children. According to the nature of this report he threw on the floor from his basket, either rods, or apples, nuts, and cakes. In Ypres children are reported to hang stockings filled with hay in the open chimneypiece on the eve of Martinmas. The next morning the stockings are found filled with gifts from St. Martin who in the night has ridden over the chimney and has been grateful for the attention paid to his gray (or white) steed. There is also an old custom in Flemish Belgium in which on the eve of Martinmas the children are placed in the corner of a room with their backs to the door and told not to look. The parents then throw in at the door apples, nuts, peppercakes, and other sweetmeats of various kinds, pretending that St. Martin has done it. If one of the children turns around, St. Martin goes away without leaving anything.

The bugaboo feature of St. Nicholas’ day also was not lacking in the Martinmas celebration. In several places in southern Germany, on St. Martin’s day, “Pelzmärte,” with blackened face and cowbells, went about giving beatings or throwing apples into rooms, whichever the children’s behavior called for.

Some of the Martinmas customs had less resemblance to St. Nicholas customs. The convivial customs of Martinmas have given St. Martin a reputation for drunkenness entirely undeserved by that zealous defender of Christianity, St. Martin of Tours. But the ones singled out for mention evidently belong jointly to St. Martin and St. Nicholas, although in their origin probably as little connected with the one as with the other.

The celebration of St. Andrew’s day, also, has features similar to that of St. Nicholas’ day. On St. Andrew’s eve (November thirtieth), in the neighborhood of Reichenberg, children are said to hang up their stockings at the windows and in the evening find them filled with apples and nuts.

The explanation of the origin of these customs is to be found in practices long antedating the time of St. Martin or St. Nicholas or even of St. Andrew. They seem to be practices rooted in pre-Christian agricultural rites which have been superseded, or better expressed, have survived with new meanings read into them. With the introduction of Christianity, following the usual course of things, the older modes of celebration were changed not so much in form as in name. To St. Martin were devoted customs which coincided in time with the celebration in honor of St. Martin, customs originally associated with the first drinking of the new wine or with the autumn slaughter, a connection not entirely lost in our own times, as indicated by the “Martlemas beef” in Great Britain, the “St. Martin’s geese” and “St. Martin’s swine” in Germany. With the shifting of the agricultural practices to a later date, the customs came to be associated with the celebration of saints’ days later in the calendar. With St. Nicholas, on December sixth, became associated customs and practices earlier associated with St. Martin, on November eleventh, or with St. Andrew on November thirtieth, but in their true nature as little appropriate to one as to the other.

There have been attempts to show points of connection between the Christian worship of St. Nicholas and the earlier worship of the Teutonic divinities. It has been attempted to connect the children’s bugaboo variously called Hansruhbart, Ruprecht, and Knecht Ruprecht, with Odin, largely through a connection between the name Ruprecht and one of the variety of names given Odin. There has been pointed out also the parallelism between the “beste tabbaerd” of St. Nicholas sung about by children, and the magic robe which enabled Odin to pass from place to place; between the gray horse of St. Nicholas on which he rode over the roofs of houses, and Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, on which he took an autumn ride through the world; between the sheaf of grain in pagan days left in the field for Odin’s horse and the wisp of hay left by children in their shoes for their friend St. Nicholas. But too much stress must not be laid on these parallelisms. The customs associated with St. Nicholas in their origin doubtless antedate Christianity but also antedate the worship of Odin. Possibly the pre-Christian practices were influenced by their temporary association with the Teutonic gods as they afterwards were by the association with the Christian saints. But in both cases this influence was only superficial.

A rapid resumé may clear up some of the obscure places in the preceding mass of details. In the practices associated in our time with the name of Santa Claus we have survivals of pagan sacred custom once regarded as important in the furtherance of human welfare. Perhaps influenced superficially by conceptions of the Germanic gods, eventually they came to be connected with the honor of Christian saints. They afford a remarkable illustration of the longevity of folk customs. With meaning lost or changed, the older forms persist. Influenced, as remains to be shown, superficially, by the life story of the saint with whose worship they became associated, also to some extent with the Roman festivities of the same season, above all converted to the use of providing pleasure, as well as just reward, for children, they have survived to our day. But owing in part to the effort of the Church in earlier times to convert the church ceremony in honor of the birth of Christ into a truly popular festival, in part to the later opposition to saint worship on the part of Protestantism, the customs once associated with the worship of St. Nicholas are now associated with the birth of Christ.

Santa Claus, the name derived from St. Nicholas through the familiar use of children in Teutonic countries, crossed to America. The exact route followed by him is somewhat open to question. On the way he traded his gray horse or ass for a reindeer and made changes in his appearance. It is usually said, however, that he was brought to America by the Dutch. In America he has made himself very much at home, and according to the explanation most generally accepted, from America he recrossed the Atlantic to England, whence he has journeyed to the most distant parts of the British Empire, to India and to Australia, where he is as familiarly known as in America. In England, however, while the custom of giving gifts to children has been made a part of the Christmas celebration, the gratitude of the children in some places goes to Santa Claus, but in other places goes to another creation of the popular fancy, a personage called Father Christmas. In parts of the German-speaking countries also, as has been shown, the honors of Christmas day are concentrated in the person of the Christ Child, and the benefactor of children is the Christ Child himself, the “Kindjes” or “Christ kindel,” more familiarly known in America as Kris Kringle. In France the place of the Christ Child as the purveyor of gifts had been in part filled by “le petit Noël,” in a manner like that in which in England Father Christmas in part shares the rôle of Santa Claus.

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  1. December 8, 2021

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