St Nicholas, Christ Child or Father Christmas

Nowadays, there is always some confusion among children and adults as to which of the three actually brings the presents? The question is not so easy to answer, since regional and denominational differences as well as changed customs play a role.

Let's start with the figure who has been associated with gifts since ancient times. We are talking about Saint Nicholas, who is said to have lived in Myra. According to tradition, Nicholas was born in Patara between 270 and 286 AD. Furthermore, he is said to have been ordained a priest at the age of 19 and appointed as abbot in the monastery of Sion near the ancient city of Myra. Myra was part of the Roman Empire at that time. The city is now called Demre and is located near the Turkish city of Antalya. Nicholas died on the 6th of December, sometime between the years 326 and 365 AD.

He is one of the most famous saints of the Catholic Church and is venerated especially in the Armenian, Russian Orthodox, as well as Byzantine Greek Churches as the most popular saint next to Mary. However, hardly anything historical has been handed down about him, whereas the legends surrounding him are extremely numerous. Some scholars believe that the supposedly historical accounts of Saint Nicholas actually combine the lives of two ecclesiastical leaders (Bishop Nicholas of Myra and his namesake Saint Nicholas Archimandrid from the monastery of Sion near Myra, who is said to have lived in the 6th century). Others completely doubt the historical existence of Nicholas and point out that everything concerning him belongs to the realm of legend.

For us, this is impossible to clarify, so we'll just go with the legend that plays a role in relation to Christmas. According to it, Nicholas of Myra helped the poor, which is why he was revered by them as a kind bishop. The date of his death, 6 December, was taken as an occasion to commemorate his good deeds.

How did this give rise to St. Nicholas Day as we know it today?

As early as the 6th century, St. Nicholas was venerated by the Orthodox Church. In the Middle Ages, the custom of giving presents to children and the poor on 6 December arose. But what do boots and socks, in which St. Nicholas nowadays puts his presents, have to do with this? Both can also be traced back to a legend.

According to the legend, St. Nicholas was told that a poor man could no longer provide for his three daughters and that they were in danger of becoming prostitutes in order to survive. To save them from prostitution, Nicholas put gold nuggets in the three daughters' shoes on three nights. According to another version of the legend, Nicholas threw the gold nuggets down the chimney. They landed in the girls' socks, which were hung up to dry.

This also explains the traditions of putting boots outside the door on 6 December in Germany and hanging up stockings on 24 December in America.

The veneration of St. Nicholas remained untouched for centuries until the reformer Martin Luther took action against it. For him, the veneration of saints was incompatible with his faith. There should be no personality cult around any saints, but only the faith in Jesus alone was valid. As a result, the giving of presents on St. Nicholas' Eve was abolished in Protestantism around 1535. However, Luther did not want to give up giving presents to children. According to his conception, there should now be presents on 24 December, the day of Jesus' birth, instead of 6 December.

Since St. Nicholas was no longer the bearer of gifts, the mystical figure of the 'Holy Christ' or the 'Christ Child' was created as the bearer of gifts. The appearance of the Christ Child was not clearly defined. Sometimes it was the child in the cradle, sometimes an angelic girl or another time an angel.

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In the course of time, the knowledge of the original Protestant origin of the Christ Child was lost and so, slowly, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Christ Child also became established in Catholic areas. The lost knowledge also led to the fact that in people's minds it was no contradiction if the Christ Child was accompanied by Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas when he brought presents.

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St. Nicholas and the Christ Child accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht
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The Christ Child as Santa's companion
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Father Christmas, the figure probably originated at the end of the 18th century, is historically the youngest in the line of gift-bringers. When he came along as a companion, he sometimes travelled in a punitive, sometimes in a friendly manner. His punitive function was when he appeared with St. Nicholas or the Christ Child, as the two main figures were always assigned the loving part in the distribution of gifts.

Father Christmas and Father Christmas with a rod handing out presents together
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Father Christmas with a rod accompanied by the Christ Child

Santa's punishments included the use of the rod or putting bad children in the sack and taking them away.

This idea was also reflected in the dummy representations of Father Christmas made in Sonneberg.

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Father Christmas figure from Sonneberg with a child in a rucksack

However, Father Christmas also appeared in customs as a loner.

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Father Christmas alone on the road with his rod

He then had the double function as a friendly or punishing bearer of gifts. Sometimes he was accompanied by another mystical figure - Knecht Ruprecht - who usually travelled with St. Nicholas. In this case, Father Christmas was the kindly one and Knecht Ruprecht was responsible for the punishments.

In early pictorial representations, the line between Father Christmas and Knecht Ruprecht, or Belsnickel (or Belznickel), is sometimes impossible to draw. Their clothing was too similar and both figures were depicted with a stern look.

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It was not until Father Christmas was given his now common appearance in the illustrations (large white beard and red clothes) and his cheerful appearance that it became easier to distinguish between the two figures.

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You can see from this brief explanation that in customs it is not always clear who brings the presents with whom and who has to play which role. It always depends on religious and/or regional traditions. There were and are no strict rules in this regard, which can sometimes lead to some confusion.