Monday, December 10, 2012

The Many Figures of Christmas

There are many different Christmas traditions in Western Europe. History, folk lore and religion have all intermeshed to create various Christmas gift-bearers, that are all popular to day in many European countries. In the US we call him Santa Clause, Old Saint Nick and Kriss Kringle (who was a girl, by the way). However, Christmas gift bearers have many names and come in many forms, from ancient bishops to little girls to mischievous elves.

Saint Nicholas- The Original Christmas Gift Bearer
Saint Nicholas was a real man, the Bishop of Myrna (in Persia). He was known for his generous nature and for performing miracles. Saint Nicholas’ popularity grew so much that he was made the patron saint of sailors, unmarried maidens, and even thieves. Over time Saint Nicholas became strongly associated with Christmas, especially since his saint day is on December 5th is celebrated in parts of Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. Saint Nicholas came to the United States during Colonial Times with Dutch settlers and was eventually made over into the modern day Santa Clause.

Saint Lucia- The Bearer of Light
The celebration of Saint Lucia, the patron saint of light, is a an important part of Christmas in Sweden. On the morning of December 13th (Saint Lucia’s Day) schools, businesses and homes choose a “Lucia.” The Lucia is dressed in white robes, red ribbons and wears a crown of candles on her head. Saint Lucia also makes an appearance in parts of Austria, where she is the gift bearer for girls (Saint Nicholas is the gift bearer for boys).

Père Noël- Gift Bearer of France
In parts of France, Père Noël comes bearing gifts on Christmas Eve for the good children. He places small treats and toys in the children’s shoes, which they leave by the fireplace.

La Befana- Gift Bearer of Italy
According to Italian legend, La Befana was a witch living at the time of the birth of Jesus. The three wise men (also known as the three kings) were on their way to Bethlehem, when they invited La Befana to come along. At first she declined, but later on changed her mind. However, she could not find the Three Kings and soon lost her way. Italian children believe that La Befana is still looking for Baby Jesus, and on the eve of the Epiphany, she flies down the chimney of each house, and leaves gifts in the children’s shoes, which are left by the fireplace, just in case Baby Jesus is there.

Christkindle- The Christ Child
The traditional gift bearer at Christmas in Germany is the Christkindl, or “Christ Child.” Usually portrayed by a young girl with a golden crown and white robe, the Christkindl is attributed to Martin Luther, who opposed the growing popularity of Saint Nicholas. Christkindl is also popular in Switzerland and Austria.

Jultomen- A Mischievous Elf
Jultomten is Sweden’s version of Santa Clause or Saint Nicholas. He is believed to be a little gnome who lives under the floorboards of the house and rides a goat, called Julbocker. The Jultomten will hand out gifts from a sack to children on Christmas Eve. Even though this pagan tradition was outlawed by both church and state in the middle ages, it persisted as a Swedish holiday tradition in private.

Orginally published at Suite101  The Many Figures of Christmas

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