Four of Santa's Contemporaries / by Chris Hall

Ever wonder how Santa Claus delivers all those presents to everyone around the world?  He doesn't, he has brothers and sisters throughout the world who help him. Santa Claus isn't the only holiday gift giver this season.  Here is the history of Santa Claus’ other siblings, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Christkindl, and La Befana, the Christmas Witch .

Sinterklaas has Odin's beard but wears St. Nicholas' Bishop Clothing.

Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas is Saint Nicholas’ incarnation in the Netherlands and Belgium.  He really isn’t that much different from the Saint Nicholas as he wears Saint Nicholas’ bishop outfit and is celebrated on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th.  Sinterklaas delivers gifts on the night before, December 5th.  What makes Sinterklaas different is that, like Odin, he wears a long white beard, rides a flying horse, and delivers his gifts by rooftop chimney.  In the Netherlands the horse is named Amerigo, in Belgium the horse is named Slecht Weer Vandaag, meaning "Bad Weather Today."  Sinterklaas is known to carry a large book with a list of all the children who have been naughty or nice.  The American Santa Claus is a direct descendent of Sinterklaas.  Santa Claus is the anglicized name of Sinterklaas, and was invented by Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam, now known as New York City.  

Unlike Santa Claus, who arrives in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer from the North Pole, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from his home in Spain.  Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, so this is why he arrives by boat.  As to why Sinterklaas lives in Spain, some have suggested that the gold balls that are Saint Nicholas’ attributes, while meant to symbolize the three bags of gold, which he gave to the three poor girls as a dowry, are commonly misidentified as being three oranges, and oranges come from Spain.  It should also be noted that Saint Nicholas has been buried in Bari since the 11th century.  Bari is now in southern Italy, but from the 15th to 18th century, Bari was part of the Kingdom of Spain.  

During the Middle Ages, Sinterklaas festivities began to rival Carnival for its drunken excesses. The Protestant Reformation thought Sinterklaas was too reminiscent of the Catholic Saint Nicholas, so Sinterklaas went into hiding.  The role of gift giver was transferred to Christkindl, the Christ Child, and gifts were exchanged on Christmas, on December 25th, not on Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th.  Christkindl was never really popular with the people, and Sinterklaas soon return, but in a more secular form, in the 19th century.  Sinterklaas also returned with a Moor servant, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who helps Sinterklaas out with distributing gifts, but who also punishes the bad children.  Often accompanying the gifts are humorous and sarcastic poems from Sinterklaas, teasing the recipient for well-known bad habits and character deficiencies.   

Image from an anonymous pamphlet showing Father Christmas on trial.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas is the traditional British name for a figure associated with Christmas, a forerunner of Santa Claus.  He is known by different names in different countries, (France, Canada, Ireland, Brazil, Hispanic South America, Portugal, Spain, Armenia, India, Andorra, Romania, Turkey, Hungary, and Bulgaria all have a Father Christmas figure).  Father Christmas lives at the North Pole, and like Odin, delivers gifts via chimney.  Some have argued that Father Christmas was born sometime after Henry VIII left the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England in the 16th century, but there are clear indications that he was around in the 15th century.  At this time Father Christmas was not a gift giver, but was an instigator of celebration and good cheer for adults on the news of Christ’s birth.  He was a party man and Christmas celebrations rivaled Carnival in their excesses.

 By the mid 17th century and the rise of Puritanism, Father Christmas became a controversial figure.  Royalists supported Father Christmas celebrations, while Puritans wanted to ban them.  The English colonies founded by Puritans in America prohibited the celebration of Christmas.  When the Puritans came to power in 1644 one of the first things Oliver Cromwell did was to enact legislation to ban all Christmas merry making.  Father Christmas was sent packing.  Fortunately for Father Christmas, his exile was short lived, and with the return of the Charles the II, a chastened Father Christmas returned as well.  By the 18th century, Father Christmas was no longer the lord of excess, but became a social progressive, lecturing stingy business owners for their greed and championing the poor.  Charles Dickens used Father Christmas (in disguise as the Ghost of Christmas Present) to scold Scrooge for his miserly ways.  By this time Father Christmas had assumed the role of gift giver.  During the 20th century, Father Christmas was banned in the Eastern Bloc by cheerless communists because of his religious past.  But if the failed Puritan attempt proved anything, it was that you can’t keep good cheer down.  Father Christmas has since returned there, too.

Christkindl and Father Christmas tag teaming up the gift delivery.

Christkindl

Christkindl, or the Christkind, is the traditional gift giver in parts of Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Switzerland, Slovakia, Hungary, France, parts of Poland, parts of Hispanic America, some areas in Brazil, and in the Acadiana region of Louisiana.  Christkindl is translates as the Christ Child.  Christkindl is literally Jesus as a child delivering gifts to children.  Christkindl was introduced by Martin Luther as a replacement for Saint Nicholas during the gift giving festivities during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries.  To prevent any confusion, the gift giving day was moved from Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th, to Christmas Day on December 25th.  Oddly enough, while Christkindl never really became too popular with Protestants, beginning in the 19th century he was adopted more readily in Catholic parts of the world.

Today the Christkind is often depicted as a sprite-like child with blond hair and angelic wings, and the role is often portrayed by a young woman.  Since the 1990’s however, Christkindl has faced increasing competition from Santa Claus, as Santa Claus is not above appearing in advertisements and commercials, while Christkindl usually shies away from such vulgarity.  Kris Kringle is the American pronunciation of Christkindl.  Somehow through time, Kris Kringle (the Christ Child) has become conflated with the bearded, jolly, and decidedly grown-up Santa Claus.   

La Befana, the Christmas Witch.

La Befana

La Befana, or the Christmas Witch, is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5th), but such is her popularity that she often makes appearances around Christmas time as well.  Italians are lucky in that they get gifts from Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or the Christkind, and La Befana.  Befana is thought to descendant from the Sabine/Roman goddess Strenia, who was the gift giving figure in Roman culture on New Years Eve.  Strenia’s and La Befana’s gifts were figs, dates, and honey, though today her gifts are mostly candies and small toys.  La Befana was not popular with some of the early Christians as her celebrations were often noisy, riotous, and licentious affairs.   

According to legend, Befana was approached by the Biblical Magi (Three Wise Men, or Three Kings) on their way to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus.  They asked Befana for directions, and while she did not know the way, she provided them with shelter for the night.  The Magi invited her to join them on their journey, but she declined, saying she had a lot of housework to attend to.  Later, Befana changed her mind and began her own search, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.  She never finds the manger in Bethlehem, and her search continues to this day.  Along the way she leaves good children toys and candy and bad children a lump of coal, an onion, or garlic, or in some poorer regions, such as rural Sicily, simply a stick.  

In another legend, La Befana has a child whom she greatly loves.  The child dies and the resulting grief maddens her.  Upon hearing the news of Jesus’ birth, she set out to see him as she is under the delusion that Jesus is her son reborn.  She met Jesus and presented him with gifts.  Jesus was delighted and in return gave her a gift.  She would now be the mother to all the children of Italy.  So now La Befana flies all over Italy on her broom to deliver gifts to the children on the eve of Epiphany.  Being a good housekeeper, sometimes she will sweep the floor of a house before she leaves.  To some people this is symbolic of sweeping away the problems of the old year to make room for the optimism of the New Year.  The children of the families who she visits will typically leave a small glass of wine and some snacks out for her, but dare not try to catch her in while she is in the house, as La Befana is said to beat with her broom any children who happen to see her.  Like Santa Claus, Odin, and others, La Befana enters the house through the chimney, so she is depicted as being perpetually covered in soot.