Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Baby Jesus brings your Christmas presents...?

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..."


Paul Sunstone said...

I wonder why more Americans don't lose their faith by drawing the parallels between Santa and Jesus? Maybe it has something to do with the age of people when they find out Santa is not real? Perhaps they are just too young for the connection to have much force? I don't know, but if age has something to do with why more Americans don't draw the connection, maybe age has something to do with why some people can discover Christkind is not real without losing their faith.

Aerin said...

We were at the Y the other day, and they had a nativity scene without baby Jesus. My kids asked me about it, and the attendant mentioned that the baby doesn't arrive until Dec. 25th.

I hadn't heard of that tradition before. I wonder if that's related to this European tradition.

(The nativity scenes growing up always had baby Jesus included the entire this was new to me as well).

Anonymous said...

Great post. I think Paul may have a good point about the age at which kids figure out Santa. Since most kids are in elementary grades when this happens, they probably haven't developed the capacity to reason by analogy yet.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey all!

Yes, it may be the development stage of the children when they stop believing in Santa Claus that keeps them from immediately asking themselves "What other things may be just stories that my parents are perpetuating?"

Regarding placing the Jesus figure in the nativity scene on the 25th -- I don't think that's a European thing. I've seen other Americans do it. The idea is that -- since Jesus wasn't born until the 25th -- his figure shouldn't be placed in the nativity scene until the 25th. But it's a little silly, since the other characters weren't hanging around the stable of an inn for weeks leading up to Jesus' birth. It's doubly silly if your nativity scene includes the wise men, who (according to the story) didn't arrive until after the birth (at a point where the family, apparently, wasn't even staying in a stable anymore).

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

Whoa. I mean ... seriously?!

Unknown said...

I am a Christian practicing this custom, and the conversation with the kids when they find out is actually easy: Jesus is still as real as ever, and that's how he does all of his work - through the love and kindness of his people, in this case the parents.