Santa Claus, Part 2: A Snowball Rolls Through Europe

Continuing where we left off in part 1, we explore more of the legend of St. Nicholas. This time, we look at how several cultures left their own imprint on the legend as it spread across Europe.

image of Saint Nicholas and "Black Peter"
St. Nicholas and Black Peter. St. Nicholas is depicted in his bishops robes. Soon he’ll be wearing the familiar fur suit

Many Americans are surprised to learn that in Europe, St. Nicholas is said to have one or more assistants who punish naughty children.

St. Nicholas legends from from Europe

  • Germany: Knecht Ruprecht, a farm hand who sometimes carried a long staff and a bag of ashes, and wore little bells on his clothes
  • Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia: Krampus, a horned figure described as “half-goat, half-demon”
  • Germany: Belsnickel, a man wearing fur covering his entire body. He sometimes wears a mask with a long tongue.
  • Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg: Black Peter, a moor from Spain
image of krampus and st. nicholas, with children
Krampus and St. Nicholas, making sure children behave themselves

Music from this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:00
This episode of Christmas Past is the second in a three part series about Santa Claus. And even though children love Santa, these episodes are not for them. grownups please enjoy them on your own. Thanks.

In act one of our story we met the man himself, the historical Saint Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century in present day Turkey, the protector and miracle worker whose legend spread across Europe with Christianity itself. It’s been said that legends are materials to be molded, and not facts to be recorded. They grow and morph, they change with the times and the tellers. The legend can often tell you more about the culture that keeps it than it does about the subject of the legend itself. We’re about to see several cultures and historical events leave their imprint on the legend of St. Nicholas. As we begin act two of our story, a snowball rolls through Europe. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past.

Our story picks up again around the 12th century. And this is where the idea of bringing gifts in the name of St. Nicholas probably began, some nuns and central friends started leaving gifts and candy for children outside the doors of poor families on the eve of St. Nicholas day. This was probably inspired by the story of the poor widower and his daughters. The custom of gifts for children, all children, not just poor ones spread very quickly, and even led to St. Nicholas markets in early December where parents could buy toys and candy. As his legend spread across Europe, it became mixed with local folk tales.

Bruce David Forbes 1:37
Christmas is like a snowball.

Brian Earl 1:38
That’s author and Professor Bruce David Forbes, you might remember him from Act One of our story.

Bruce David Forbes 1:44
And when I say Christmas is like a snowball, I don’t mean the snowball that you throw, but a snowball that you roll to make a snowman or a fort. And when you roll the snowball, it picks up things and it gets bigger and it changes size and shape.

Brian Earl 1:58
At this point, St. Nicholas still has nothing to do with Christmas itself. We’ll get to that. But nevertheless, we can still see the snowballing effect in action. For example, until the 14th century, St. Nicholas his beard was usually pictured as dark, but his story reminded some people of Odin, the white bearded Norse god and legend had it that at the time of the winter solstice, Odin rode across the sky at night on a white horse and children would leave out carrots and hay for Odin source. Sound familiar? So eventually, St. Nicholas was pictured as having a long white beard and writing a white horse. He also began to take on some of the traits of these elfin which like characters that show up in some European folk tales, the ones that would reward good children and punish naughty ones. You might remember from Act One, what Professor Forbes said about Nicholas having three basic roles.

Bruce David Forbes 2:48
One is that he’s a protector, kind of a guardian angel. Second, he becomes a disciplinarian. Trying to find out if children are naughty or nice. And third, he’s a generous gift giver.

Brian Earl 2:59
We’re about to see St. Nicholas Day celebrations change as the emphasis shifts to that of disciplinary fun. But punishing children isn’t exactly saintly. So in many regions, he had a servant or companion who did it for him. For example, Germany had connected rupprecht farmhand who carried a rod. They also had Bell’s nickel, a masked man who carried a threatening tree branch. Krampus was probably the scariest of all. He was found in Austria and he was sort of a goat demon, these guys and others like them and there were a lot of other guys like them all did basically the same thing. They’d give small gifts to children who are well behaved and threatened the ones who weren’t this snowballing of legends and the morphing of roles are actually tightly coupled. For example, the Dutch had their own tradition surrounding St. Nicholas, or as they called him, Sinterklaas.

Bruce David Forbes 3:50
Sinter: Saint. Claus is a shortened form of Nicholas so Sinterklaas yes is the phrase that the Dutch would use.

Brian Earl 3:59
But Spain conquered the Netherlands in the 16th century and had a lot of influence on the Dutch Catholic Church. Eventually, the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas, told that he spent most of the year in Spain keeping track of children’s behavior. Spain itself had a strong Arab influence from its own history, which also trickled into the Sinterklaas legend.

Bruce David Forbes 4:17
Arab Muslims were in control of a major part of Europe, especially Spain for a long period of time, that influence was there and so when they were in Spain, the St. Nicholas tradition continued, but he got a sidekick who was called in English he would be called Black Pete

Brian Earl 4:38
Black Peter was pictured resembling a more wearing a turban and a gold earring. And sometimes there were several black Peters. The black Peter story is the subject of a comic essay by David Sedaris called six to eight black men.

Something else was going on in Europe in the 16th century: The Protestant Reformation. And one of the things that Protestants opposed was devotion to saints as the Catholics had done. Of course, this would also include St. Nicholas. But he was so popular that a lot of Protestants just wouldn’t hear of it.

Bruce David Forbes 5:14
St. Nicholas was so popular, you just couldn’t win. And so it was allowed to continue. In other places, you tried to have a substitute.

Brian Earl 5:22
So Germany, which had become Protestant, like most of Northern Europe, came up with a plan. Suppose it wasn’t St. Nicholas who visited children, suppose it was the Christ child. And suppose the date of the celebration were removed from December 5, which was St. Nicholas de Eve to Christmas Eve. That way people could keep some familiar version of their popular celebration, but put the emphasis on the Christ Child instead of a saint. And the plan went over terribly. They couldn’t get anyone interested. People missed St. Nicholas. And so back to the drawing board, they came up with a new plan. Now, St. Nicholas and the Christ child would go around together on Christmas Eve. Not every culture did this. Some parts of Europe still have separate St. Nicholas and Christmas celebrations even to this day. And by the way, in German, the word for Christ child is christkindl which of course was later mutated into…

Bruce David Forbes 6:18
Kris Kringle. Isn’t that crazy?

Brian Earl 6:20
The snowball rolls on.

Sometime during all of this St. Nicholas also got a fashion makeover. Maybe because the Protestants had a problem with saints, but depictions of him no longer had him wearing a traditional bishops robes. Instead, he got a first suit and a matching hat and perhaps to further disassociate St Nicholas from his saintly origins, different regions morphed him into a more secular figure. Like for instance, Germany had a figure called Christmas man. And in Finland, they had Old Man Winter. And in time England’s Father Christmas, who already existed and had nothing to do with Santa Claus ended up becoming synonymous with him anyway, within a century of the Reformation European started crossing the Atlantic and setting up colonies in the new world. And the St. Nicholas tradition came with them. I hope you’ll join me for the third and final act of our story, when St. Nicholas Sinterklaas finally becomes the Santa Claus we know today.

And now let’s hear some Christmas memories from my good friend hope in Massachusetts. Hope is only 10 years old. And you know that song that says every mother’s child is going to spy to see if reindeer really know how to fly. I guess a lot of kids try to do that. And hope is no exception. Let’s hear her tell about that in some of her other favorite Christmas Eve traditions.

Hope 7:46
On Christmas Eve night, I would try to get my mom to let me sleep on the couch so I could try to stay up and see Santa. And I was young, so I never made it. And I and then in the morning, I would just see the tree with the gift around it. And I’d be like, man, I missed him every single year. Uh, my friends used to say that he wasn’t real, so I wanted to prove them wrong. But I’ve seen pictures but then I used to think they were all the time when I look closely, you can only tell the beard is a little fake. Usually on Christmas Eve, my grandma always has these seven fish, which I eat about two of them usually. And then

I go to bed. And we always do presents that night.

Brian Earl 8:37
If you have a Christmas memory you’d like to share, I’d love to share it with everyone else. So record a voice memo into your phone and email it to me at Christmas Past Try to keep it to about a minute or so. And be sure to say your name and where you’re from. And if you’re shy about recording your own voice, that’s okay. You can also just email me something and maybe I’ll get a chance to read it on the show. Again, that’s Christmas Past

Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Thank you once again to Dr. Bruce David Forbes, and we’ll hear from him again in the next episode. And thanks also to hope Merry Christmas my beautiful mermaid princess I hope to see you soon. Be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. I’m on iTunes or however you get your podcast. It takes just a moment and saves you several moments in the long run. You don’t have to look for new episodes when they come out because they’re delivered right to you. And I’ve got a bunch more episodes planned for this season. I don’t want you to miss a single one. There’s more information about subscribing at Christmas Past Hey, come on by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you like vintage Christmas stuff and Christmas trivia while I’m posting it almost every day. Give me a like or a follow or just say hi and join the conversation. If you search for Christmas Past podcast in all three places, you’ll find me and also you can come to my official home on the web Christmas Past for each episode you’ll find show notes, pictures, recipes, references and information about the music you hear on the show.