Santa is a monopoly. Many are called, but few are chosen.The evolution of the species of Santas has resulted in a survival of the fittest. Whether a case of perfect creation, the quantum leap, or evolution, only more time will provide the answer. The Santa we know today is very much a sub-species of the Santa of our ancestors. This older, more archetypical Santa was often less than benign, cheap, and in fact an encounter could be quite traumatic. These bad Santa’s, perhaps a reflection of the collective unconscious, were often a recourse for a cast of tricksters, charlatans and fear mongers seeking a little immortality. Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ”A Visit From Saint Nicholas” defined the central characteristics and political cartoonist Thomas Nast refined the figure through his illustrations beginning in 1862, putting away, at least temporarily the invasion of wild foreign characters and alcohol soaked raucous festivities into a more benign and wholesome occasion.
In the 1800′s German printers perfected the technology of color lithography and flooded North America with cheap holiday postcards of Santa. The images were not pretty, and fraught with violent overtones. Knecht Ruprecht was a wild man blackened with grime who whips disobedient children with birch branches. He stuffs the worst offenders in a sack and throws them in a river. Protestantism and martin Luther discouraged a veneration of the saints aand seemed bent on the creation of the anti-Santa or bad santa where the cult of saint was supplanted by the cult of sin. Perhaps inspired by Dotsoevsky’s Crime and Punishment:Pelznickel was covered in thick hides and a birch branch who kept children in line throughout the Rhineland. And Weihnachstsmann, a lonely melancholy hooded figure, thin and gaunt, that resembles more a down on his luck peddler of cheap wares than our present bon-vivant.
“. . . the luxury, the perversion, the iniquity, the wanton display and the Jewish materialism disgusted me so thoroughly that I was almost beside myself. I nearly imagined myself to be Jesus Christ when he came to his Father’s Temple and found the money changers.” Eckart described Hitler as “brandishing his whip and exclaimed that it was his mission to descend upon the capital like a Christ and scourge the corrupt.” ( Hitler on Christmas in Berlin ) Although the Nazis sought to transform Christmas into a Nazi holiday, they never could quite succeed in replacing the Christmas kitsch and sentimentality, and authentic spirituality, with a sack full of politically charged content. The idea was to seek new meanings for inherited customs while avoiding the potential for sectarian religious strife that existed since the Reformation.
Recasting Christmas as a national socialist holiday was a problematic affair, so the line of action consisted of paganizing the holiday as a useful way of cultivating explicitly nationalistic feelings wrapped in a notionally Christmas package. ” But if we do this, we must realize that the Christmas holiday or Christmas festival is more than a date on the calendar suitable for cheap entertainment events. We cannot meet our goals in the style of pre-war clubs with their “variety evenings,” raffles or the ever so popular military farce. Not even if “Bananini the Magician” or “Bear Mouth the Sword Swallower” make a guest appearance. …We must avoid the theatrical spirit and theatrical props and stay with political reality — even when we celebrate. Whether a Christmas “festival of lights” needs such a name can be left open, though such a literary travesty hardly seems to deserve the name “Christmas celebration.” But properly done, it can become a true affirmation. It becomes a symbol when we see in it the opportunity to make visible in a festive way those things which are taken for granted during the rest of the year, but which are the foundations of our national life and thinking.” ( Hannes Kremer, 1937 ) Every culture finds it irresistible to reinvent the character to bring him closer to the sought after spirit:
”Christmas had likewise been identified as having its roots in a pre-Christian ‘Nordic’ celebration of the winter solstice. Although Christmas was celebrated all over the world, in Germany it came to be seen as a particularlyGerman festival, full of survivals of a lost past – tree cults and solstice fires – that modern Germans could reconnect with through ‘Nordic’ Christmas trees, and the flickering drama of paganistic bonfires and torchlight parades….The word weihnacht (holy night) may have come from pagan times but had for ages stood for the blessing brought by the birth of Jesus. The Nazis, however, began to promote a different name for the holiday, calling it Julfest (Yuletide) or Rauhnacht (Rough Night) to emphasise a neo-pagan, Nordic/Germanic concept that focused on the winter solstice, the harsh, dark times that required forbearance and strength, followed by the long-awaited return of the Sun.’ ”
In many of the older traditions, the gift giver had a sinister helper who carried out the disciplinary work. In southern Germany and Austria it was the demonic Krampus. Krampus was a pre-Christian character, a horned and shaggy demon based on Austrian and Bavarian folk legend. On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, these horrible apparitions parade through the streets frightening women and children with rusty chains and bells. The tradition of gift giver as dark equivocal character lurking in the forest is quite compatible with elements of Christianity focusing on fear and moral suasion to keep the flock in line.”… these “shaggy characters” were entirely appropriate for their age.