Coca-Cola killed St. Nicholas – but not all Christmas characters can be reduced to the archetype of the red-and-white Coca-Cola Santa Claus. But can Christkind, la Befana and Co. take on Santa Claus? We introduce you to five competitors.
We all know Santa Claus and his portrayal, canonized by Coca-Cola advertising, as "Santa Claus" in a red robe with white fur trim. In 1931, cartoonist Haddon Sundblom had created this version of Santa Claus for the company. Illustrated a new Coca-Cola Santa ad every year for thirty-three years, cementing our current idea of Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas, Knecht Ruprecht, Father Frost, Schmutzli, the Christmas fairy, Santa Claus: the tradition of an old man handing out presents to the good children and punishing the not so good has been around for much longer. In many countries, however, the national Santa Clauses have been absorbed by the American Santa Claus. Or at least they have to pretend to be this one to keep up.
However, he’s not the only Christmas creature that’s between the 6. December and the 6. January romp around! For there are some Christmas traditions that cannot be reduced to the Coca-Cola Santa archetype.
Many of our Christmas traditions can be traced back to pagan customs that anticipate the rebirth of nature and the return of light with the winter solstice. In their basic features they remained despite their Christianization over the centuries.
They show us how old traditions endure or are revived, and how new traditions can emerge.
We introduce you to five Christmas creatures. And because it’s fun, we rate them in the categories "child-friendliness" (popularity, compatibility, accessibility), "festivity" (aesthetics, contemplativeness, makes (festive) mood) and "can take on Coca-Cola Santa" (in the capitalist consumer competition distribute gifts, in their magical abilities and if necessary in duel).
Chic angel aesthetics: the Christ Child.
In southern Germany and among Protestants, Jesus Christ comes in person as the "Holy Spirit" in infant form to give gifts to children. Presumably, the Christ Child was invented by Martin Luther in the 16. Invented in the nineteenth century to coincide with the worship of St. Nicholas on 6. December to compete. In the process, the gift-giving was set to the 25. December relocated to broaden the appeal of Christmas Day gift-giving.
The depiction as an angel probably stems from the fact that in Christmas parades and nativity plays it often led a host of angels as the Christ Child. In these plays with fixed sequences, figures such as the Christ Child were often staged as living beings.
Child-friendliness: All right. Neither real baby nor real child. It could hold up as an identification figure for children, but that’s where it fails in its golden-haired chubbiness. Gives presents, but doesn’t show his face.
Celebration: Very good, the angel aesthetics is chic. Optionally with crown, halo, always in a white robe or with golden trim.
Can take on SantaThe Christ Child is the protorival and as Jesus baby, the boss of Santa Claus. As an angel, the Christkid unfortunately often degenerates into a sidekick.
Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
A classic, but one that wouldn’t stand a chance in a conflict against Santa Claus.
We know the names of Santa’s reindeer from a poem written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph joins more than a hundred years later, in 1939, as an invention of the Jewish Robert Lewis May. He wrote the children’s book of Rudolph as a giveaway for the Chicago department store Montgomery Ward.
Famously, Santa’s reindeer won’t let Rudolph play because of his red-hot nose – May based the story on the tale of the ugly duckling and his own childhood experiences. Finally, Santa Claus recognizes his usefulness, and Rudolph averts weather-related flight delays by lighting the way in the fog with his glowing nose.
Child Friendly: High! Children like animals, and children know what it’s like when others don’t let them play along.
Festivity: Rudolph’s song is a classic that sets the mood. However, it is not quite enough for a unified concept.
Can take on Santa: In no case! Santa was Rudolph’s talent scout, without this job Rudolph might be poached. With his striking mutation, he would immediately fall victim to his natural predators there.
Pedagogically and feministically valuable: La Befana.
In Italy, a witch, la Befana, comes on the night of 5. on the 6. January over for Epiphany. According to legend, the Magi passed by on their way to Bethlehem to ask for directions. The Magi invited them to accompany them in their search for the baby Jesus. La Befana rejected it at first. Later, she regretted her decision and desperately searched for the Magi and the Christ Child – until this day. She stuffs candy and small gifts into her socks ("caramelle") for good children she encounters on her quest through the houses, while the less good children get coal ("carbone") or garlic. But the supposed coal is "carbone dolce", black colored sugar mass. Afterwards, Befana also sweeps the floor clean. Italians leave her a glass of wine for this and some food to fortify her.
Child-friendliness: Good! Once the child gets used to the good witch, the subversive interpretation is exhilarating and pedagogically-feministically valuable.
Solemnity: Bad. The rustic look is customizable, but unfortunately overlaps with Halloween. "Befana" is also used colloquially in Italian as an insult for an ugly woman. Very sad! Befana also cleans up after the presents, which is very practical with a Christmas tree and a feast with all the pine needles and crumbs!
Can take on SantaIn duels and gift-giving, yes, but she would have to find her way out of Italy first.
Gryla, Jolasveinar and the Icelandic Christmas cat
Real competition for Santa Claus: the Christmas cat.
In Iceland, there’s a whole family of trolls, including a cat, who show up at Christmastime. From 12. December to the 6. Every day in January a Jolasveinar, a Christmas journeyman, visits the people. They mainly play pranks, but also leave small gifts or rotting potatoes in the shoes of expectant children.
The man-eating Gryla, the mother of the Jolasveinar, lets her 13 sons go down from their mountain cave to the villages and towns only at Christmas time. The number and the personality of the troll boys varied according to the region, up to 80 names are known. The jump to the 20. In the nineteenth century, thanks to the popular Icelandic poet Johannes úr Kotlum, the Jolasveinar created. He gave them their present names and good-natured rogue nature in his poem in 1932. Since then, we know the Jolasveinar again as gorge goblin, peck, cooking spoon licker, pot scraper, Essnapflecker, door beater, sausage stibitzer, window gazer, meat crimper and candle scrounger – and meanwhile as a bearer of small and larger gifts.
Child Friendliness: In the 18. In the twentieth century, it still had to be banned to scare children with gryla. Meanwhile, the tradition focuses on the next generation of naughty troll boys.
Celebration: Medium. On the one hand, most troll boys seem to have been named for sniffing and licking things they shouldn’t. The troll boys are also often dressed up in red and white costumes, making them look like Santa Claus imitators who are too skinny for their own good.
But at least their giant cat Jolakotturinn makes sure we’re all well dressed: Those who haven’t earned new clothes for Christmas get eaten. Bjork, by the way, set a poem about the Christmas cat by Johannes úr Kotlum to music.
Can take on Santa: fur trimming and always the same red suit – and combined with such a belt? Santa better watch out that he doesn’t get eaten by the Christmas cat!
Tio de Nadal
Tio is excellent for releasing aggression during the holidays
In Catalonia and parts of southern France, no fleeting figure comes to give presents. Instead, the gift-giver squats in the living room as a guest and permanent fixture: the Tio de Nadal, uncle and Christmas tribe all in one. Tio is usually a tree trunk standing on two legs, wearing a Catalan beret and a friendly painted smile.
From 8. December, the children of the household put sawdust, fruit and water to the Tio and cover him with a blanket to keep him warm. After dinner on Christmas Eve, children sing a song while beating their guest with sticks to get him to "poop" ("cagar") presents. The repertoire of Tio songs is large and varies even from family to family. Under the blanket you will find figs, turron nougat and small toys, for example. However, to compete with more modern gift-bringers, larger gifts may well be hidden under the blanket.
The Tio finally stops wiggling, and declares the giving of presents over. Or he indicates that he is done with a final gift like a salted herring or garlic. In the past, the tio was burned afterwards, as in many traditional customs for the winter solstice. His ashes should protect against fire and lightning.
Kindness to children: Excellent. Tio doesn’t take it upon himself to punish or eat anyone because he or she hasn’t been good. Kids also love candy, toilet jokes, and hitting things with sticks.
Festivity: Good. We learn hospitality by feeding and warming Tio, and gain weight by… er, beating him up and eating candy. Excellent for relieving aggression during the holidays in the company of loved ones.
Can take on SantaTio de Nadal was there long before Santa Claus and will be there long after him.