CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS AND THEIR PAGAN CONNECTIONS

Because the festive aspects of the German-American Christmas, including the tree, were considered pagan, the Puritans in New England shunned them until about 1875. They were not entirely wrong!

It is generally acknowledged that the Christmas tree is of German origin. In the pre-Christian era the oak was the sacred tree for the Germanic peoples. Legend has it that the missionary to the Germans, St. Boniface, in order to stop sacrifices at their sacred Donar Oak near Geismar, chopped the tree down [725 A.D.]. He is said to have replaced the oak by a fir tree, adorned in tribute to the new-born Christ. Ironically, the evergreen tree has been ascribed magical power by the Germanic peoples as a representation of fertility. Today, the fir and its next of kin enjoy the highest degree of popularity. The Christmas tree custom has spread across large parts of the world.

The church also placed Christ's birth at the time of the winter solstice and fostered as the bringer of gifts St. Nikolaus, the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, who died on December 6, 343. Christian symbols and earlier historical layers of Germanic mythological figures began to meld, or to live side by side. Consequently, the old German God Wotan, riding the wild skies with his retinue, emerged out of the pre-Christian past.

To this day Nikolaus traditions vary as widely from region to region as his guise and name. He appears as St. Nikolaus (mainly in Catholic areas), Klaus, Nickel, Sünnerklas, Seneklos, Pelznickel, Knecht Ruprecht, Weihnachtsmann and Christkindl (in mostly Protestant areas). He is afoot or astride a white horse, a reindeer, a mule, or even a goat. More diverse than those of the saintly Nikolaus are the many legends and traditions surrounding his often wild companions: the Zwarte Pitt, Hans Muff, Schimmelreiter, Krampus, Leutfresser, Rumpelklas, Schmutzli. A religious myth whose source was in a Semitic nation, was subsequently developed by a Mediterranean people, and finally superimposed on the quite alien mythologies of the Northern Europeans. The result is a wide array of coexisting customs, Christian and Germanic.

Part of the modern American picture of Christmas is that of a magnificent sleigh pulled by eight reindeer carrying a bushy-bearded Santa Claus. The eight reindeer have only been in Santa's service since 1822. That is when Clement Clarke Moore, of Troy, N.Y., wrote his decidedly secular "'Twas the night before Christmas..." Moore's knowledge of popular views of Christmas was based chiefly on the St. Nikolaus customs brought to the area by Dutch, German and Scandinavian immigrants. In the German-speaking countries, and Holland and Belgium as well, December 6 is the most distinctive children's festival of the year. The shops are full of many-shaped biscuits, gilt gingerbreads--sometimes representing the saint--sugar images, toys and other little gifts. On December 5, small children place their shoes on a window sill or in front of the door. If they have a fireplace they will hang their stockings there. In the morning they will find small gifts, an orange and an apple and a small toy.

Forty years after Moore first published his poem, the illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast created the American image of Santa Claus, a combination of Moore's "jolly old elf" and the Pelznickel of Nast's native Bavarian Palatinate. Nast, the son of a Bavarian army bandsman, was born in Landau, in 1840, and came to New York with his parents at age 6. In 1862 he joined Harper's Weekly, primarily as Civil War correspondent and began to produce politically acclaimed cartoons and war sketches. He was asked by a publisher to illustrate a book of holiday poems that included Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Combining imagery from Moore's verse, and his childhood memories of Christmas, Nast created a rotund, bearded, pipe-smoking figure in a woolly suit and cap, carrying a large sack of toys.

In many regions, and also in the U.S., the festivities originally attributed to the gift-giving St. Nikolaus have been transferred from December 6 to Christmas. The giver of gifts is the "Weihnachtsmann" [Santa Claus] or the "Christkindl" [Christchild, an angel]. The latter, misunderstood by Anglophones, became "naturalized" as "Kris Kringle." Christmas customs are perhaps the nicest example for cultural transfer and adaptation resulting in an American tradition with a German touch.

Time Line of Religious Beliefs

500 AD------------------1500 AD
-----------------------/---------------------------/----------------------
Pagan/GermanicChristianCatholic
Protestant

Culture = beliefs, customs and traditions held by a group

Ruth Reichmann
Max Kade German-American Center, IUPUI


OTHER RESOURCES by Robert Shea

  • Origin of the 12 Days of Christmas and other religious aspects.
  • My site on Nikolaus and his wild companions
  • More information on my general Christmas links page


    Return to German-American Christmas page for more information about the above topics.

    Shea site total hits tracked since December 14, 2005
    eXTReMe Tracker