It's funny how the Christmas legends vary slightly from one culture to the next. In the US, the story of Saint Nicholas (who traditionally gave small presents on December 6) morphed into "Santa Claus" (via the Dutch "Sinterklaas") -- and moved some of his legendary gift-giving antics to Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, some cultures also have a legendary "Father Christmas" (a.k.a Père Noël or Babbo Natale) who has his own traditions, but sometimes simply merges with the American Santa Claus. But in some German-speaking regions, there's another legend that I find amazingly strange: the Christmas gifts are brought by the Baby Jesus (Christkind).
The Christkind doesn't have quite as elaborate a mythology as Santa Claus, but he is supposed to magically bring the Christmas tree and the gifts during the night on Christmas Eve. I've always been kind of curious about how this works, and I had the opportunity to ask some Austrian friends about it the other day. These friends have kids who are a little younger than ours, and still believe that the Baby Jesus brings their presents.
I explained to them the reason the tradition stuck me as so odd. In the US, there's a whole angst-ridden rite-of-passage when the kid eventually figures out that Santa Claus is just made-up, and then there's a big question (especially in religious households) of whether the kid will extrapolate and start wondering about Jesus. But in Austria, Switzerland, and southern Germany, when the kid figures out that the whole "Christkind" thing was just a story, put-on by their own parents... Well, you kind of skip that intermediate step of having to notice the parallel...
"It's European efficiency," laughed my Austrian friend.
But, seriously, if any believing Christians practice this custom, that has got to be one surreal discussion when the kids figure it out.
"That part about angels announcing Jesus's birth in a manger, that's totally real. The part about the Baby Jesus bringing you presents on Christmas? OK, we admit we were making that up and faking it. But the stuff about Jesus walking on water and rising from the dead? That part is totally real..."