The Christkind (or 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!
Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster. The image at the top of the page is available under a Creative Commons license.
St Nicholas – or Sinterklaas as the Dutch call him – would arrive at households on 5 December, the eve of St Nicholas’s Day, and test children on their knowledge of scripture. Prior to his visit, children would try to memorise the Bible for hours in their desperation to pass the tests he would set them. And for good reason – passing the test might mean being rewarded with sweets and treats but failure could cost them their soul. Nowadays a visit to Santa Claus is a wonderful and magical experience where they meet a jolly, warm, friendly character who sits children on his knee, jovially asks if they have been naughty or nice and merrily gives them a Christmas present, chuckling all the time. In contrast, the Sinterklaas of the Dutch Middle Ages was a severe, threatening religious autocrat who preached fire and brimstone, judged children’s moral characters and threatened to damn them all to a lifetime in Hell. If children looked forward to his visits at all – and I’m not at all convinced that they did – their anticipation was mixed with a sense of fear and trepidation. This was a dress rehearsal for the day of judgement.
Sinterklaas would glare at the nervous children and, unsmiling, demand answers to questions on the Bible. If children knew the answers they would be handed sweets and warned to ensure they remained good for the following year. If children got a few questions wrong they would be soundly beaten. But if they had failed to learn anything at all they would be dragged off to Hell.
To understand the terror this instilled in children, it is important to remember that this was a time when Hell and eternal damnation were seen as very real threats for anyone who was not sufficiently pious and the role of a bishop or priest involved ensuring their flock was so terrified of the possibility of an afterlife of eternal torment that they would obey the Church without question. The visit of St Nicholas was an early test of a child’s devotion to the Lord and every child was terrified of failing his tests. Without his favour and protection, there was nothing to stop the devil taking them away. Children really, really did need to be good for goodness’ sake.
“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is written by Paul Hawkins and published by Simon & Schuster, and available now. The drawing is by Mel Four and is taken from the book.
 Child safeguarding issues permitted.