How did Santa Claus (Jolly Old St. Nick) become a Christmas angel?
We can thank Martin Luther.
The Protestant reformer, who lived in Germany 1483-1546, had concerns about a perception that Catholics worshiped saints. So he decided to change his own family’s tradition of children getting gifts on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6). Instead, his children (of which he had six) received presents on Dec. 24. Luther told them “the holy Christ” brought their gifts.
This idea spread along with the growth of Protestantism. By the time the tradition settled in Nuremberg, the Christkind (Christ child) had become an angel-like child. Eventually the child became represented as a young girl. It persisted through the morphing of St. Nick into Santa Claus.
Today, at the famous Christkindlmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany, (Nov. 29 to Dec. 24), the angel opens the market each day. This angel — portrayed by a young woman in her late teens and elected by votes of Nuremberg residents to serve for two years — welcomes visitors. First she reads a poem that begins: “You men and women, who were once children; you little ones, whose life’s journey is just beginning. Each and all, who troubled tomorrow, are full of cheer today.”
The Christkindlmarkt angel, who wears a gold crown and white and gold robes is also known as the Rauschgoldengel because of the legend of a dollmaker. During the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648), this unnamed craftsman made an angel doll, dressed in white and gold and with a crown. The doll came into being after the dollmaker heard what he believed were angel wings outside the window while he prayed for his dying daughter. (His daughter lived.)
There are many Chriskindlmarkts around the world, based on Nuremberg’s model. Milwaukee (until Dec. 24) and Sparta (until Dec. 14) both have such markets this year, as does the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake (Dec. 6-15).
Following Luther’s tradition, the Christkind brings presents on Christmas Eve. Children are not allowed into the room where the Christmas tree is kept until they hear the angel ring a bell. Sometimes, the angel decorates the tree as well as leaves presents.
Another tradition that arose later is having a Christkind friend throughout the Advent season. Many of us might recognize this as having a Secret Santa. When you become an angel for your Christkind, you do something nice for them secretly throughout the season. The idea is that by being such an angel, you are doing something nice for the Christ Child himself.
As to why the angel appears as a woman, it is believed that the angel’s features trace to the Angel of the Annunciation. In Old German tradition, angels were depicted as female in appearance.
While the Christkind appears as an angel in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and other European countries around Germany, a similar custom in Hungary and the Czech Republic is the Jezisek or Jezuska. Like the Christmas angel, this figure also brings gifts and decorates the Christmas tree. However, in appearance, Jezuska is a young boy, reminding us of the origins of the tradition with the Christ Child.
In some countries, the Christkind has also become a symbol of protest against the commercialization of the Christmas season and of Santa Claus in particular. Many people attribute Santa, dressed in a red suit, as a marketing ploy developed by Coca-Cola in the 1930s.
While it is true that Santa wears Coca-Cola’s colors (red and white), and he appeared in Coca-Cola ads, his jolly image traces further back.
In 1862, Thomas Nast a political cartoonist, who with Harper’s Weekly, developed the Santa Claus image of a rotund man with a white beard. Nast’s Santa first appeared in Jan. 3, 1863, with Civil War troops and dressed in tan. Many years later, Nast — himself a German immigrant — changed Santa’s attire to red. (Nast also invented the familiar image of Uncle Sam.)
Sources: Catholic News Service at catholicnews.com; catholicculture.org; BBC News; thevintagenews.com; Chriskindlmarkt.de; Epicpew.com; The New York Times; tripsavy.com; Myczechrepublic.com; Germanculture.com/us; and radio.cz