(Sorry this is a day late!)
The Christ Child was an impressively literal creation. Quite simply, it was the baby Jesus, freshly out of his manger and clad in white, who went round Germany and other Lutheran territories delivering gifts to children. The idea was that this was a spiritual figure who would teach children the true meaning of Christmas.
There were several problems with this.
The first one was a literal one. The baby Jesus was born on Christmas Day. And delivered the presents on Christmas Eve. This meant that somehow or other, the baby had to either pop out of Mary’s womb pre-birth for a quick bit of gift-giving or somehow, post-birth, travel back in time twenty-four hours and then travel round the world handing out gifts. Before being able to eat or speak. Even for a miracle-worker it made very little sense.
Secondly, the whole thing was a bit hard to visualise. How on earth does a baby deliver gifts? Between the inability to walk and the inability to carry things, it seemed doomed from the off.
Thirdly, the whole appeal – and admittedly terror – of St Nicholas was that he burst into the room in full view of everyone and made a public show of bringing the gifts. Obviously this required an adult family member or neighbour to play St Nicholas and visit children. Clearly the same could not happen for the Christkind. An adult turning up dressed as a baby would have been unconvincing and strangely unfestive. So the tradition had to be rewritten so that the Christkind appeared in the dead of night whilst all children were asleep and delivered the presents incognito.
Fourthly, the Lutherans made a fundamental miscalculation. Moving the present-giving from 6 December to Christmas Day might help increase the significance of Christmas Day but it also increased the significance of giving presents on Christmas Day. Ultimately Luther’s plan to popularise giving gifts at Christmas instead of other times served to, well, popularise giving gifts at Christmas. The Lutherans basically managed to accidentally invent the very focus on the material side of Christmas that they were trying to destroy!
The Christ Child did remain a giftgiver in parts of Central Europe but over time his image began to change. People began to realise that, whilst you could not dress a grown adult up as a baby, you could dress up a child (usually a girl) might be happy to dress as an angel. So the Christ-child morphed into an angel and continues to exist in parts of Europe today. Meanwhile the German for Christ-child – Chirstkindl has morphed into Kris Kringle, another name for Santa in parts of the US.
“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is available now from Simon & Schuster. The image at the top is taken from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey/2013/12/beyond-santa-claus-the-other-gift-givers/