From the Alliance Herald (Nebraska), Dec. 11, 1913:
“What is Santa Claus’ age? The jolly, roistering, pot-bellied, ever young old fellow that we know has made his appearance on earth in so many guises that the secret of his first coming threatens to remain forever veiled in the midst of antiquity. No one can say with any certainty just when he first made his appearance among prehistoric men, for merry old Santa in one form or another delighted children’s hearts in many a pagan household centuries before the commencement of the Christian era and prior to any recorded history. The name of Santa Claus, by which he is known in America, is the Dutch pet name for St. Nicholas. The name Kriss Kringle, by which he is known in England, is a corruption of Christ Kindlein or the Christ Child. But the festivities that distinguish Christmas existed long before Christianity, and a jolly god of good cheer appears as the personification of the period from the earlier pagan times. Now the Santa Claus of today is simply that old jolly god sobered up, washed and purified.
The Dionysia of the Greeks the Saturnalia of the Romans, the Twelve Nights of the old Norsemen and of the Teutons all celebrated the coming of the winter solstice. People then gave themselves up to all sorts of revelry and excess. In the Dionysia the representative figure was not the young Dionysus or Bacchus, but the aged cheery and disreputable Silenus, the chief of the Satyrs and the god of drunkards. In the Saturnalia it was Saturn; in the Germanic feasts it was Thor, both long bearded and white haired gods like Silenus.
Now, although the central figure of the Christian festival is the child God, the Christ Kindlein, the influence of long pagan custom was too strong within the breasts of early Christians to be easily superseded. The tradition of hoary age as the true representative of the dying year and its attendant jollifications still remained smoldering under the ashes of the past. It burst into new flame when the past was too far back to be looked upon with fear and antagonism of the church and there seemed no longer any danger of a relapse into paganism.
At first, however, the more dignified representative was chosen as more in keeping with he occasion Saturn was unconsciously rebaptized as St. Nicholas, the same of the saint whose festival occurs in December and who as the patron of young people is especially fitted for the patronage of the festival which has come to be looked upon as especially that of the young. At first St. Nicholas did not supersede the Christ Child, but accompanied him in his Christmas travels, as, indeed, he still does in certain rural neighborhoods of Europe where the modern spirit has been least felt.
St. Nicholas, according to the hagiologist, was a bishop of Myra, who flourished early in the fourth century. He is the patron of children and schoolboys.
It is strange that everywhere St. Nicholas is most honored and his feast day most observed the most pious and instructed among the common people know little of the legend of the saint. He is treated with that mixture of seriousness and frivolity which becomes a dying myth.
In southern Germany and Austria a youth garbed as St. Nicholas and accompanied by two angels and a whole troop of devils in hideous masquerade, with blackened faces and clanking chains, on Dec. 5 (St. Nicholas’ festal day) makes a round of certain houses where the little ones of the village have been collected. To the good children he brings gifts of nuts and apples, while the naughty ones are left to the devices of the satanic followers in his train.
In many places the bugbear overshadows the importance of both the Christ Child and St. Nicholas. He appears under different names and in difference guises. In Lower Austria he is the frightful Krampus, with his clanking chains and horrible devil’s mask, who notwithstanding his gilded nuts and apples, gingerbread and toys, which he carries in his basket, is the terror of the nursery. In Hanover, Holstein and Mecklenburg he is known as Clas. In Silesia his name is Joseph.
Sometimes the bugbear was a female. In Lower Austria she was called the Budelfran. In Suabia it was the Berchtel who chastised children, that did not spin diligently with rods, but rewarded the industrious with dried pears, apples and nuts.
The female bogy survives especially in Russia and in Italy; in the former place she is known as the Baboushka, in the latter as the Befana. Befana is a corruption of Epiphania or Epiphany, for it is on Epiphany, Jan. 6, that the Italians make presents to their children in commemoration of the gifts given by the three wise men to Christ on that date.”
For more on the darker side of Christmas, visit Christmas-The Other Halloween!
*This entry was originally published in 2013.