I’ve written about it before, but this Christmastide I’m delving a little deeper into the traditions of the season of giving and its central figure: Santa Claus, Weihnachtsmann, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), Père Noël, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Babbo Natale, Julemanden, and so on. If you aren’t already aware of the many Germanic aspects of Santa Claus and Christmas, you can read about it on our German Way Christmas pages. While the German-American St. Nick connection and the “German” pickle ornament myth are fascinating, I know there’s more to the Santa Claus story than most people think.
Soon after beginning my Santa research, I discovered a book entitled Weihnachtsmann: Die wahre Geschichte (“Santa Claus: The True Story”) by the German ethnologist Thomas Hauschild. The author starts by discussing the usual pagan, Germanic, and Christian aspects of the Weihnachtsmann and how the German Santa became what he is today – a blend of the nice, saintly Nikolaus and the not-so-nice Germanic Ruprecht/Krampus bad guys, giving presents to the good children and a lump of coal (or a Rute, switch) to the bad ones. (“You better watch out!”)
Hauschild goes on to discuss the commercialization of Christmas, the Coca-Cola Santa Claus (actually invented by Washington Irving and the German-American Thomas Nast; the German Weihnachtsmann was imagined by painter Moritz von Schwind in the mid-19th century). The German religious reformer Martin Luther, who had a large impact on Christmas in Germany, also gets a nod, while the topic of the commercialization of Christmas and the secular cult of Santa Claus comes into sharp focus.
The Christian churches don’t like the fact that the cult of Santa Claus (Weihnachtsmann) is better known to many children today than the cult of the figure that Christmas is actually about – the newborn Jesus. To be sure, the cult of Santa Claus also has a lot in common with a religion: believers (young children) and apostates (older children), sacred legends and ceremonies, ritualistic rules and vestments. – from Studie zum Weihnachtsmann: Der Gott der Gabe von Tobias Becker, Der Spiegel (translated from German)
But just when you least expect it, the author takes a sharp turn – to the East, the Far East. Suddenly we encounter Chinese gods, stars in southern constellations, the North and the South Pole, and Asian legends. Not exactly what one expects for Christmas.
Hauschild introduces us to Fu, Lu, and Shou, the three Chinese gods of happiness, prosperity, and longevity respectively. These ancient deities are also known as the “Three Stars,” stars found in the southern constellation known as Carina. Xing means “star” and the three gods are also called Fu Xing, Lu Xing, and Shou Xing, indicating their astronomical connection. But it is Shou that Hauschild singles out for his resemblance in some ways to the modern image of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. Shou, the god of longevity, is also known as “The Old Man of the South Pole.” The Chinese Shou also has counterparts in Japan (Jurojin), Mongolia (Sagaan Ubgen, “White Old Man”), and in other Asian countries. Although Thomas Nast is credited with placing Santa’s home at the North Pole, both the North and South Poles – once mysterious, inaccessible places literally at the ends of the earth – were also home to Chinese gods like Shou.
Hauschild makes his case for the similarity between Europe’s St. Nicholas and the Chinese Shou. The white-bearded Nicholas holds a staff. So does the white-bearded Shou. Both figures are depicted with rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes, and high foreheads. Nicholas is often seen with three apples in his hands, while Shou holds “the peach of immortality,” a devine fruit that blossoms but once in 3,000 years and conveys long life when eaten. The Japanese Jurojin, similar to Shou but not identical, also carries a staff, but he wears a hat, not unlike a bishop’s. Jurojin, white-bearded and one of the Japanese “Seven Gods of Good Fortune,” is also often depicted standing beside a deer, another symbol of long life.
Of course there really isn’t just one Santa Claus or Nicholas. Despite some commonalities (rosy cheeks, red-and-white, white beard, etc.), this legendary figure takes on many shapes and configurations. America even gave him a wife in the mid-1800s. But the underlying ideal remains the same: a generous bestower of gifts who brings joy and happiness.
Hauschild doesn’t avoid the naysayers and critics. Parents can be conflicted about “lying” to their children about Santa. (Psychologist Tamar Murachver calls it “a cultural, not parental, lie.”) Some Christian faiths (Jehova’s Witnesses, Reformed Christians) refuse to celebrate Christmas at all, claiming (correctly) it is never mentioned in the Bible, and pointing out that Jesus was not even born on December 25.
In Spain children get their gifts on January 6 (Epiphany, a minor date in the German and UK Christmas season), but the gifts come from the Three Kings (the Wise Men), not Papa Noel. In Spain and Italy, Santa is more of an advertising icon than a real part of the Christmas observance. In Italy, it is the old witch Befana who brings the gifts, not Santa.
The details may vary, but Hauschild is trying to show that Santa Claus and other customs and legends have a basis in human nature, in human needs and desires. Even if there may not be any direct link between Shou Xing in China and Santa Claus in Europe, they share more than just their outside appearance. Customs spring from many sources in many places, but they arise for a reason. Santa came about as a symbol of caring for people, protecting children, and helping the weak in the dead of winter. In that sense he has a lot in common with his cousin Shou in Asia – a fact that still would be true even if the two white-bearded legends didn’t have such an uncanny resemblance to each other.
BUCH: Weihnachtsmann. Die wahre Geschichte von Thomas Hauschild
S. Fischer Verlag, 2012, 384 Seiten
Order this book (in German) from Amazon.com: