Christmas is personified in numerous and sometimes ambivalent ways because of the overlapping beliefs in different countries. These personifications vary depending on socio-cultural context or differences in economic situations.
The Christmas custom of mythical or religious characters distributing gifts and candy to children is found in France, as it is in Canada. Three main characters can typify these generous givers of gifts.

Saint Nicholas is the oldest children’s benefactor; his cult is still very popular in Alsace.
 
Next, up until the beginning of the XXth century in Canada, the Infant Jesus was responsible for distributing candy and toys. In the North of France he existed in the form of the Christkindel and was accompanied by Hans Trapp, another of the incarnations of Christmas Eve. In Franche Comté, it was Tante Arie, the Christmas lady, who rewarded or punished children.

Lastly, it was the turn of the legendary Santa Claus, for Anglophones and of "Père Noël" (Father Christmas) for Francophones, to take over; Santa Claus and "Père Noël" are one and the same person, and the result of a gradual shift away Read More
Christmas is personified in numerous and sometimes ambivalent ways because of the overlapping beliefs in different countries. These personifications vary depending on socio-cultural context or differences in economic situations.
The Christmas custom of mythical or religious characters distributing gifts and candy to children is found in France, as it is in Canada. Three main characters can typify these generous givers of gifts.

Saint Nicholas is the oldest children’s benefactor; his cult is still very popular in Alsace.
 
Next, up until the beginning of the XXth century in Canada, the Infant Jesus was responsible for distributing candy and toys. In the North of France he existed in the form of the Christkindel and was accompanied by Hans Trapp, another of the incarnations of Christmas Eve. In Franche Comté, it was Tante Arie, the Christmas lady, who rewarded or punished children.

Lastly, it was the turn of the legendary Santa Claus, for Anglophones and of "Père Noël" (Father Christmas) for Francophones, to take over; Santa Claus and "Père Noël" are one and the same person, and the result of a gradual shift away from the traditional Saint Nicholas. Their generosity first touched the middle class before spreading in the 1930s to the less well-off.
 
For children the world over, belief in the existence of "Père Noël" or Santa Claus took on such importance through media coverage that it found expression from the 1970s on in letters addressed to Santa at his residence at the North Pole. Canada Post Corporation was soon obliged to set up a special program to reply to the enormous amount of Santa Claus mail as a result of this phenomenon.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Cover page of the Journal illustré

In this cover page of the Journal illustré dated January 1st, 1878, it is not the "Père Noël", (Santa Claus) who puts the gifts in the children's shoes, but the Infant Jésus Himself.

Musée national des arts et traditions populaires
c. 1878
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Saint Nicholas (270-310) was at one time bishop of Myra, a town in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He is supposed to have died on December 6, which is why his feast is celebrated on that date. Recognized for his great generosity, he is the patron saint of little children and school children.

Tradition tells us that he became concerned about the welfare of three young women in his parish. Their father, of noble estate, was impoverished and about to deliver them into a life of slavery to ameliorate the family situation. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for a young woman’s dowry to support her parental family for a time. Saint Nicholas is called a saint because he saw the impending bondage of three women. He provided the gift, the golden dowry of their freedom. This lifted the burden of necessity and made it possible for each of these young women to make their own way in the world.

Some versions of the story tell that Saint Nicholas threw his gift of gold down the chimney. Some say he left it by the door or tossed it through the open window. At Christmas time we have a curious likeness of the venerable saint scurrying down chimneys, bearing gifts Read More
Saint Nicholas (270-310) was at one time bishop of Myra, a town in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He is supposed to have died on December 6, which is why his feast is celebrated on that date. Recognized for his great generosity, he is the patron saint of little children and school children.

Tradition tells us that he became concerned about the welfare of three young women in his parish. Their father, of noble estate, was impoverished and about to deliver them into a life of slavery to ameliorate the family situation. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for a young woman’s dowry to support her parental family for a time. Saint Nicholas is called a saint because he saw the impending bondage of three women. He provided the gift, the golden dowry of their freedom. This lifted the burden of necessity and made it possible for each of these young women to make their own way in the world.

Some versions of the story tell that Saint Nicholas threw his gift of gold down the chimney. Some say he left it by the door or tossed it through the open window. At Christmas time we have a curious likeness of the venerable saint scurrying down chimneys, bearing gifts, the gifts that add a measure of richness to our lives. Who can doubt the reality of Santa Claus knowing his origins, knowing the spirit he evokes? Saint Nicholas of Myra lives on in all those Christmas offerings that liberate people to live lives in which joy is possible.

The feast of Saint Nicholas was abolished in some European countries after the Protestant reformation of the XVIth century. The Dutch, however, have preserved this ancient Catholic custom, and small Dutch children still await the visit of Sinter Klaas (Saint Nicholas) on the night of December 6.At the beginning of the XVIIth century, the Dutch emigrated to the United States and founded the colony of New Amsterdam which, in 1664, became New York. Over several decades, the Dutch custom of commemorating the feast of Saint Nicholas spread to the United States. Sinter Klaas quickly became Santa Claus for Americans.

This thoughtful philanthropist, depicted as an old man in a white beard with a long caped coat or sometimes even in episcopal robes, remained, nonetheless, a moralistic figure. He rewarded deserving children and punished the difficult and unruly ones.
 
After several decades, Christian society found it more appropriate to bring this "children’s festival" closer to that of the Infant Jesus. Saint Nicholas henceforth made his rounds of Christian families during the night of December 24.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Three different representations of Saint Nicholas

The lithograph at left is an example of icons currently used in Serbian Orthodox households in Alberta. The manufactured figurine in the center depicts the Dutch saint holding the Gospel. Popular figurines such as this are used to decorate Dutch homes as of December 5th, the day when gifts are exchanged. The icon on the right is the ukrainian representation of the saint bishop.

Harry Korol
Folklife Collections, Provincial Museum of Alberta, à Edmonton
c. 1995
Photograph
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


A traditional image of St Nicholas astride his donkey, loaded with toys.

A traditional image of St Nicholas astride his donkey, loaded with toys.

Musée national des arts et traditions populaires, Paris, France

Engraving
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


In the eastern part of France, the cult of Saint Nicholas and pilgrimages to Saint Nicolas du Port were very popular in the Middle Ages. In the XVIth century, reformists placed greater emphasis on the image of the Christkindel or the Christ Child to divert popular fervour away from the saint. In Canada, it was also the Christ Child who filled the Christmas stockings of French Catholic children on the eve of December 25 while Saint Nicholas took care of young Anglophones. The Christkindel and Saint Nicholas remained the two main dispensers of gifts until the First World War.

The custom was for the Christkindel to be represented by young men and women dressed in white who would go from door to door distributing gifts to good children, making them sing carols or recite prayers. A frightening character called Hans Trapp accompanied the Christkindel on his rounds. His role was to beat children who had been naughty or to take them away in his big sack.

The Christkindel was played by a young girl veiled in white, crowned with fir boughs and burning candles, resembling the image of Saint Lucia. The proximity of the celebration of Saint Lucia on December 13 and her c Read More
In the eastern part of France, the cult of Saint Nicholas and pilgrimages to Saint Nicolas du Port were very popular in the Middle Ages. In the XVIth century, reformists placed greater emphasis on the image of the Christkindel or the Christ Child to divert popular fervour away from the saint. In Canada, it was also the Christ Child who filled the Christmas stockings of French Catholic children on the eve of December 25 while Saint Nicholas took care of young Anglophones. The Christkindel and Saint Nicholas remained the two main dispensers of gifts until the First World War.

The custom was for the Christkindel to be represented by young men and women dressed in white who would go from door to door distributing gifts to good children, making them sing carols or recite prayers. A frightening character called Hans Trapp accompanied the Christkindel on his rounds. His role was to beat children who had been naughty or to take them away in his big sack.

The Christkindel was played by a young girl veiled in white, crowned with fir boughs and burning candles, resembling the image of Saint Lucia. The proximity of the celebration of Saint Lucia on December 13 and her connection with light explains how her image could be confused with that of the Christkindel and of Jesus, Light of the World.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Sketch for a postcard by P.Kauffmann

The Christkindel, crowned and draped in white, distributes candies to children. Hans Trapp, with his birch rods and bells, appears in the background.

P. Kauffmann
Musée alsacien, Strasbourg, France
19th Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Saint Lucia or Lucy (A.D. 304), according to legend, was a martyr in the persecutions of Diocletian at Catania in Sicily. Many of the ancient light and fire customs of Yuletide are associated with Saint Lucia since her feast day fell on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, prior to the calendar reform. In the homes of Norwegians and Swedes on 13 December, a daughter dressed in white with a wreath of candles on her head, comes to awaken the family with a tray of coffee and a braided bread in the shape of the sun called a saffron Lucia. Saint Lucia’s presence announces to the demons of winter that their time is over and the sun is returning, that light conquers darkness.
Saint Lucia or Lucy (A.D. 304), according to legend, was a martyr in the persecutions of Diocletian at Catania in Sicily. Many of the ancient light and fire customs of Yuletide are associated with Saint Lucia since her feast day fell on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, prior to the calendar reform. In the homes of Norwegians and Swedes on 13 December, a daughter dressed in white with a wreath of candles on her head, comes to awaken the family with a tray of coffee and a braided bread in the shape of the sun called a saffron Lucia. Saint Lucia’s presence announces to the demons of winter that their time is over and the sun is returning, that light conquers darkness.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

She is invoked in prayer against diseases of the eyes and throat.

Saint Lucia's mother suffered from an incurable disease, and when she was cured, Lucy distributed all their wealth to the poor. This angered the man to whom she was betrothed, and he denounced her as being a Christian. Her fiancé could have no rest from thinking of her beautiful eyes, so that she plucked them out and sent them to him on a dish. After much torture, she was finally mortally stabbed in the neck.

Harry Korol
Folklife Collections, Provincial Museum of Alberta, à Edmonton
c. 1995
Photography
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


St Lucia

St Lucia

Carlo Crivelli
Avignon, Petit Palais, France. Agence photographique de la Réunion des musées nationaux
15th Century
Coloured wood
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Credit for having brought together in a single being the various personifications of Christmas gift-givers is due to the American press. The event that brought these characters together was the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem entitled "A Visit From St. Nicholas". This poem was published for the first time in the New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Reprinted in following years by several large American dailies, the story was later translated into many languages and circulated throughout the world.
 
In his story, Moore depicts the generous gift-giver in the form of a curious little elf that comes down chimneys and travels through the air in a miniature sleigh pulled by eight reindeer called, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.

The influence of the American press gradually replaced the moralizing attributes of Saint Nicholas with the basically generous character of Santa Claus. In spite of that, the old habit of threatening unruly children with no gifts from Santa Claus persists in popular culture.

In 1860, the illustrator and caricaturist Thomas Nast, who was working for the N Read More
Credit for having brought together in a single being the various personifications of Christmas gift-givers is due to the American press. The event that brought these characters together was the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem entitled "A Visit From St. Nicholas". This poem was published for the first time in the New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Reprinted in following years by several large American dailies, the story was later translated into many languages and circulated throughout the world.
 
In his story, Moore depicts the generous gift-giver in the form of a curious little elf that comes down chimneys and travels through the air in a miniature sleigh pulled by eight reindeer called, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.

The influence of the American press gradually replaced the moralizing attributes of Saint Nicholas with the basically generous character of Santa Claus. In spite of that, the old habit of threatening unruly children with no gifts from Santa Claus persists in popular culture.

In 1860, the illustrator and caricaturist Thomas Nast, who was working for the New York newspaper Harper’s Illustrated Weekly, dressed Santa Claus in a red costume trimmed with white fur and held up with a wide leather belt. For close to 30 years, hundreds of Nast sketches depicted every aspect of the legend of Santa Claus who was known to Francophones as "Père Noël" (Father Christmas).

Nast established Santa’s official residence at the North Pole in 1885 when he sketched two children looking at a map of the world and tracing Santa’s journey from the North Pole to the United States. The following year, the American writer, George P. Webster, took up this idea, explaining that Santa’s toy factory and "his house, during the long summer months, was hidden in the ice and snow of the North Pole".

In 1931, Santa Claus took on a totally new look in an advertising illustration circulated by the Coca-Cola company. Through the artistic talent of Haddon Sundblom, he would henceforward have human stature (thus making him more convincing and much more accessible), a plump belly, a sympathetic face, a jovial air and a debonair bearing.

For close to 35 years, Coca-Cola used this portrait of Santa Claus in print media then on television throughout the world.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Santa Claus

This Santa Claus is dressed in the usual red suit trimmed with white fur and is made of plaster and cardboard and trimmed with cotton batting.

Pierre Soulard
Musée de la civilisation, Québec, Canada
c. 1920
Photography
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Do children still believe in Santa Claus?

Do children still believe in Santa Claus? Perhaps... Whether they do or not, they seem to enjoy being able to meet him and to sit on his knee to ask for gifts or tell him secrets.

Collection privée, Sainte-Foy, Canada
c. 1998
Photography
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Advertising poster

Advertising poster displaying the Santa Claus image created by Haddom Sundblom in 1931

Photo : Musée de la civilisation, Pierre Soulard, 1995
Musée de la civilisation, Québec, Canada
c. 1940
Photography
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Hans Trapp, a kind of ogre, accompanied the Christkindel on his rounds. It was the Christkindel, however, who handed out gifts; Hans Trapp was the one who carried off naughty children in his sack.

At one time Père Fouettard, an invention of XVIIIth century pedagogues, accompanied either the Christkindel or Saint Nicholas.
 
As for Tante Arie, her character developed in Franche Comté. She is represented as an old woman, half fairy, half witch, who comes down from a mountain on Christmas Eve, riding a donkey. She brings gifts for good children but birch rods or dunce caps for the naughty ones.

The Yule Goat customary in Swedish homes in Canada at this time of year, is part of a story with similar meaning. This figure of braided straw and wheat is the traditional gift-giver in that northern country with its extraordinary winter light. And what Swede doesn’t remember, at least in the depth of his or her own heart, that this goat is the steed of that ancient god Thor, a fierce contender for power in the life of human beings. War, pillage, and the exercise of will, are his daily occupation.

But during this season celebrating the Pr Read More
Hans Trapp, a kind of ogre, accompanied the Christkindel on his rounds. It was the Christkindel, however, who handed out gifts; Hans Trapp was the one who carried off naughty children in his sack.

At one time Père Fouettard, an invention of XVIIIth century pedagogues, accompanied either the Christkindel or Saint Nicholas.
 
As for Tante Arie, her character developed in Franche Comté. She is represented as an old woman, half fairy, half witch, who comes down from a mountain on Christmas Eve, riding a donkey. She brings gifts for good children but birch rods or dunce caps for the naughty ones.

The Yule Goat customary in Swedish homes in Canada at this time of year, is part of a story with similar meaning. This figure of braided straw and wheat is the traditional gift-giver in that northern country with its extraordinary winter light. And what Swede doesn’t remember, at least in the depth of his or her own heart, that this goat is the steed of that ancient god Thor, a fierce contender for power in the life of human beings. War, pillage, and the exercise of will, are his daily occupation.

But during this season celebrating the Prince of Peace, Thor’s Goat marks the transformation we occasionally glimpse in human life. In human culture gods depict (perhaps along with other things) what men, women, and children hold as ultimate and precious. Having our own way, making war, and dominating the situation (what Thor was best at) are certainly not foreign to us. Yet here, at this time of year, stands the Goat, transformed from the companion of the wilful god into the "Yule Goat," giver of good gifts to those who still have innocence to see.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

A cut-out jumping jack portraying Hans Trapp

A cut-out jumping jack portraying Hans Trapp in a costume reminiscent of the Middle Ages with a beggar's pouch filled with toys, dolls and sticks. This image resembles the way Père Noël (Santa Claus) is often pictured.

French print works at Wissembourg.
Musée national des arts et traditions populaires, Paris, France
20th Century
Colour lithograph
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Illustration taken from a plate of twelve scenes in three registers, from Metz

Illustration taken from a plate of twelve scenes in three registers, from Metz. The bogeyman rewards good children but takes "to the rat cellar children who don't want to say their prayers".

Musée national des arts et traditions populaires, Paris, France

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


In earlier times straw ornaments were used in Sweden to symbolize the fertility of animals and fields.

In earlier times straw ornaments were used in Sweden to symbolize the fertility of animals and fields. Christians interpreted the straw as representative of Christ's first resting place in the manger. Today these ornaments are used as decoration throughout the home and on the Christmas tree. The Yule Goat is Sweden's gift-giver, throwing gifts through the doors of homes.

Harry Korol
Folklife Collections, Provincial Museum of Alberta, à Edmonton
c. 1995
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • identify how people, events, and ideas of the past shape the present;
  • describe the development of Christmas traditions, with examples;
  • compare Christmas traditions between cultures, and over time.

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