Santa Claus' family tree has two branches. Sinter Klaas, Kris Kringle, Pere Noel, Buller Clos (Nicholas with Bells, in one region of Germany) and others recall the legend of St. Nicholas. He was a bishop in the late Roman Empire and lived in what is now Turkey. One night he anonymously tossed three bags of gold into the house of three poor girls who, lacking marriage dowries, might have been forced into prostitution. Nicholas' feast day is December 6, when German children put out their shoes to be filled with little presents. Elsewhere, St. Nicholas' generosity has become a part of the Christmas celebration.
More secular is the English Father Christmas. This jolly gent, a symbol of feasting and merriment, blends the Norse god Odin and the Roman Saturn, whose festival was celebrated Dec. 17-23. A Russian counterpart is Ded Moroz (Father Frost), a descendant of Nikolai Chudovartis, a shaman who mediated between the human and spirit worlds. Father Frost appears on New Year's Day, riding a mushroom pulled by reindeer. This branch of the family also includes Norway's gnomelike Julenisse, who lives under the barn floor, guards the home and brings presents to good chidren.
The traditions merge in the German Weihnachtsmann, a Father Christmas figure, who is accompanied by two helpers. Christkindl (the Christ-child) brings presents to good children, and the imp Knecht Ruprecht punishes bad boys and girls. Similarly, in the Czech Republic, Black Peter carries a whip and chains to scourge naughty children as he travels with the kind Svaty Mikalas (St. Nicholas). Other helpers include Snegurochka, the snow maiden who accompanies Ded Moroz, and the Pre Fouettard who keep track of good and bad children for France's Pere Noel (Father Christmas, but he's more of a St. Nick figure).
In Italy, the gift-bringer is La Befana, an old, poor woman who carries a broom. Busy sweeping her doorstep when the Wise Men stopped by, La Befana refused to accompany them to Bethlehem. Now she travels endlessly looking for the baby Jesus and bearing gifts for good children. La Befana arrives on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.
Pub Date: 12/25/98