Detail of a vintage Christmas postcard showing Christkind.

Christkind: How Does this Christmas Gift-Bringer Differ from Santa Claus?

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Christkind is a Christmas gift-bringer in certain European countries. Like its more famous counterpart, Santa Claus, Christkind is said to leave presents for children under the Christmas tree on the night of Christmas Eve.

Christkind may be translated from German to mean ‘Christ-child’. This gift-giver is popular in such European countries as Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Hungary, Slovakia, and Switzerland. Often considered to be the traditional Christmas gift-giver of these countries, the story of Christkind begins in the 16th century.

The Emergence of the Christkind

One of the most significant events in the history of Western Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, took place during this period. This movement was initiated by the German theologian Martin Luther. It was this same Luther who came up with the idea of the Christkind. Up until Luther’s time, German children were told that gifts were brought to them during the Christmas period by Saint Nicholas (a 4th century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor). Saint Nicholas is said to have brought gifts to children on the 6th of December, which was feast day.

St. Nicholas "Lipensky" (Russian icon from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod).

St. Nicholas "Lipensky" (Russian icon from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod). ( Public Domain )

For Luther, the Catholic tradition of venerating the saints was regarded as blasphemy, as he argued none other than Christ ought to be idolized. In addition, the idea of a Catholic figure bringing gifts to Protestant children did not sit well with Luther. Therefore, Luther decided to replace Saint Nicholas with another gift-giving figure, Christkind. Whilst Saint Nicholas brought presents to children on his feast day, Christkind delivered his on the 24th of December, which is the last day of Advent, or Christmas Eve.

1893 depiction of Christkind.

1893 depiction of Christkind. ( Public Domain )

The concept of Christkind was modelled after the infant Jesus himself, as Luther began telling Protestant children that it was Jesus Christ himself who brought them their Christmas presents. As for the appearance of Christkind, it developed over the years. It has been suggested that Christkind’s form was most likely drawn from the medieval German tradition of Christmas plays.

Christkind Munich, Germany.

Christkind Munich, Germany . ( Public Domain )

The central character of these plays was often the angel Gabriel, who brought God’s message to Mary about her unborn son, Jesus. The plays gave the angel Gabriel a corporeal form, and this in turn was the appearance given to Christkind. Therefore, Christkind became depicted as an angelic figure with blonde hair and wings. Each year, the German city of Nuremberg hosts the Christkindlmarkt, and a Christkind is selected. As the Christkind gained feminine features over time, a girl is chosen to play the part of the Nuremberg Christkind.

Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt opening ceremony.

Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt opening ceremony. (Roland Berger/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Threat of Santa Claus?

Luther’s plan to replace the Catholic Saint Nicholas with Christkind succeeded. Today, however, Christkind faces a new threat, not from the Catholic Church, but from the secular world. This is the jolly old man in red known to the world as Santa Claus. Whilst some may scoff at the idea that the Christ child and Santa Claus could be in conflict with each other, others are seeing this as no laughing matter.

For some, Santa Claus is regarded as a symbol of American popular culture and consumerism, and his presence is seen as a sort of ‘invasion’. In Austria, for example, some have decided to fight back against Santa Claus (It may be noted that Austria, whilst being a largely Catholic country, adopted Christkind during the second half of the 19th century).

Santa Claus – a threat to Christkind?

Santa Claus – a threat to Christkind? ( Public Domain )

A pro-Christkind Association was started in Innsbruck, where merchants were asked to replace the images of Santa Claus on their shop windows with that of Christkind. Supporters of Christkind argue that Santa Claus represents the spirit of consumerism, whilst Christkind personifies “peace, calm, hearth, home and family”, values cherished by the Austrian people. Others beg to differ, pointing out that at the end of it all, it is still about the presents, which makes Christkind no less materialistic than Santa Claus.

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