Saturday, December 23, 2006

Mele Kalikimaka

If you think globalization is something new, take a look at the history of Christmas. Not the Christmas story in the sense of the birth of Jesus Christ, but the way we celebrate the event. (By the way: this post is based largely on an article and research done by my partner Astrid Ule, the real expert in matters Christmasy.)

Let's start with America's contribution. The fat, merry fellow in the red costume who we know as Santa Claus is based on an ancient Catholic saint and was – like so many things in America – created by immigrants. Thomas Nast was born in Bavaria and came to America with his mother when he was six, in 1846. He became a leading illustrator and caricaturist known among other things for newspaper illustrations from the Civil War. For a series of Christmas illustrations, he invented a small, round, elflike Saint Nick – small enough to fit through a chimney. His illustrations were still black and white – when Coca-Cola decided to use the character in a series of ads from 1931 on, Santa Claus' costume became red and he grew into a life-size fat man (who could no longer fit through a chimney, but let's not squabble).

Where did Nast get the idea? Besides the popular English poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" or "The Night Before Christmas" from 1823, which describes the reindeer and the chimney thing, Nast probably knew a similar character from the old German children's book called "Struwwelpeter." The original Santa Claus was the ancient Saint Nicholas, who is traditionally depicted as thin, tall man wearing a bishop's mitre. Nast wanted to make an American version: He did away with the mitre, which challenged the equality of religions, and gave the guy a cheerful, positive-thinking laugh (which probably came from "A Night Before Christmas"). The name Santa Claus, by the way, is not Nast's invention: It comes from the Dutch name from Saint Nicholas, "Sinterklaas" (Nikolaus = Claus).
The original Saint Nicholas is still known in Europe, but he is not a European invention. The thin, tall Saint Nick comes from what is now Turkey. The first Saint Nick was the Byzantine bishop of Myra, who liked to give money and gifts to virgins and other needy types. When he was killed by the evil Romans in the fourth century, the Christians made a martyr out of him. His legend was incredibly popular for centuries in Christian Byzantium, especially in Constantinople (today Istanbul). When the Europeans of the early Middle Ages began to get a taste for Byzantine art, they imported the legend of Nicolas as well. It was only a small step from major stardom in the heaven of Catholic saints to the saint of Christmas.
While the rest of the world remains true-blue Saint Nick fans, the Germans introduced a weird variation in the 16th century. It was Martin Luther's idea. The Lutherans were doing their best to drive out the pagan Catholic practice of worshiping saints, but try as they might, they couldn’t kill Christmas. So they thought to themselves: If this gift-giving thing is supposedly a symbol for the gift of salvation to mankind, why not make the presents come not from some guy, but from Christ himself? From then on, German protestant children were visited by the "Christ child", who gave them gifts on December 24. How the "Christkind" knows what gifts to give, seeing as He is too young to read Christmas letters, I can’t say. (To be fair, there is some uncertainty as what the "Christ child" was originally meant to be – it could have been the Baby Jesus, but it could also have been a "Christian child" visiting the Manger with gifts for Baby Jesus.)

Then a very German thing happened: the Protestants adopted the "Christkind" but refused to give up Saint Nick; at the same time, the Catholics adapted the "Christkindl" for their own in addition to Father Christmas. Germasn are always doing this. When they see another chance to party, they grab it, whether it be an American tradition like Halloween or a belief from another religion. They just like excuses to party, that's all. Today, most German kids get gifts from Saint Nick on December 6, from the Christkind on December 24 and from Santa Claus on December 25 (or some combination thereof). You gotta hand it to them: For all their complaining, they know how to live.

As far as I can see, the German Christkind hasn’t been adapted by other cultures, but most other German traditions have been.

The Advent calendar or Christmas calendar probably comes from Germany, as does the Christmas tree itself. Though the tree clearly has pre-Christian origins, the earliest historical evidence of a true Christmas dates back to Freiburg in 1419 and then to Strassburg in 1539. It was also Germans who brought the Christmas tree to North America – more specifically, the family of a German officer from Braunschweig in Canada during the War of Independence. But that's not all. A big part of our Christmas ornament tradition comes from Germany. Glass Christmas balls probably come from the Thuringia region, and those little wooden ornaments that you hang on the tree, as well as the Nutcracker and the Christmas pyramid, come from the mountainous region of Erzgebirge.

How the Erzgebirge came to be the world's foremost producers of high-quality Christmas kitsch is the most heart-warming stories I know about the commercialization of Christmas: At one time, most villages in those mountains lived from silver or other precious metal mines. When the ores gave out, the villagers looked around for other sources of income. There were plenty of trees up there, and they began carving. Soon they were specialized in Christmas decorations. And there's much more than most people know about – the Erzgebirge invented all kinds of Chistmasy knickknacks that have yet to be discovered by Americans.

Today the export continues. Christmas shops like Käthe Wohlfahrt make sure of that. Wohlfahrt sell Christmas kitsch all year round and has stores in the US as well as in France and Belgium, not to mention a good international online venture. The German tradition of Christmas markets is also growing in the UK and the US (in the US, the tradition started in Chicago and Denver and went on form there). My prediction: in a couple of generations, the "Christkindlmarkt" will be as popular in the US as Oktoberfest is today.

There is one more interesting American tradition that comes from Germany. Europeans are always making fun of Americans who smother their houses in tons of colorful lights every year: "Look at the American kitsch!" But this tradition, too, probably comes from Germany.

The tradition began in the Erzgebirge, back when the mines were still full of silver and other precious metals. In the dark winter months, wives would put lanterns before their houses in the evenings to welcome their tired men home from the mines. Eventually some of these villages became known as "Villages of Light," and when the mines ran out of metal, they kept up the tradition. Soon the brightly lit houses were no longer associated to mine life, but to Christmas. Today, villages in the Erzgebirge like Grossrückerswalde, Mauersberg and Schneeberg still decorate their houses with bright lights and even celebrate Christmastime "Light Festivals."
Here's wishing a Merry Christmas, Froehliche Weihnachten, Joyeux Noel and Mele Kalikimaka to all of you and all God's blessings in the New Year - may all your hopes and dreams come true.

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