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Who Is Kris Kringle? The International Spirit of Christmas

The Real Story Behind Kris Kringle, St. Nicholas, Santa Claus & Father Christmas

When we think of Christmas, no matter where you are in the world, the image that is conjured up has long since been known worldwide as one of joy, festivities, feasting and togetherness.

This feeling came to be embodied by one singular character that personified everything that the Christmas period meant to the people of the world: Old Father Christmas, the epitome of a jolly attitude, a generous heart, and a symbol of ‘the good old days’.

Over time, this personification of the spirit of Christmas spread far and wide and, eventually, citizens from all over the globe came to celebrate the life of the cheerful folklore legend and to craft their own portrayals of the jolly man himself.

But, who is Kris Kringle?

In the US and most of the UK, he is portrayed as either Santa Claus or Father Christmas, a rotund, charitable nomad known for bringing gifts to children that have been on their best behaviour throughout the year. On the other hand, in most European countries, his identity and appearance are rooted more in religion, based on those of early religious entities, such as various bishops and Christ-like figures.

For example, one of these is St. Nicholas of Myra, a Greek Christian bishop and the Patron Saint of Children. His reputation and habit as a secret gift-giver paved the way for all of the contemporary and modern models of Santa Claus that we know and love to this very day.

Despite these conceptions and ideas about the spirit of Christmas, there is still very little that is known about his true identity. Is he Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, or Kris Kringle? Perhaps we will never truly know for sure, but we can certainly try to gain a deeper insight.

Read on to find out who the real Kris Kringle is, how he is represented across the globe, and to learn about the vibrant and diverse traditions that surround him. 

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Who Is the Real Kris Kringle? The Many Faces of Kris Kringle

Kris Kringle

Origins:

Kris Kringle is one of the lesser-known and least-researched avatar of the spirit of Christmas, but there are some things that we can know for certain about him.

To begin with, he has more ties to religion than any of his other incarnations, and this is shown in the fact that his name, ‘Kris Kringle’, is a British translation of the Pennsylvania German Christkinkle, a diminutive version of the German Christkindl or Christkind. In other words, the name is based on the idea that he is a literal personification of the baby Jesus himself.

While most countries have adopted the modern concept of Santa Claus in the place of Kris Kringle and Old Father Christmas, in America, this name is still used by the Pennsylvania Dutch. In German-speaking areas of the world such as Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Hungary – just to name a few – the Son of God is considered to be the traditional Christmas gift-bringer borne into the world in order to bring gifts to the people during Christmas time.

Kris Kringle, a.k.a Christchild, is typically portrayed with dusty blonde hair and angel wings and is often interpreted as an angelic incarnation of Jesus bringing presents when no-one is around to see him. It is thought that children are forbidden from seeing the Christkind or Kris Kringle character in person, with the assumption that they will not receive any gifts that year if they attempt to spot him.

Kris Kringle is also responsible for the traditional practice hang up our stockings on the altar above the fireplace, or what was first known as hanging our stockings in the chimney. However, According to Grigg & Elliot in their 1847 work Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree, this German tradition was superseded in the 16th century, by that of bringing in a Christmas Tree to place on a focal table, to await the visit of Kris Kringle each year.

Stocking hung on lit fireplace next to a Christmas tree - Who is Kris Kringle - Open for Christmas

Traditionally, the whole family will enter the living room to open their presents, before the parents tell their children that the Christkind has left after dropping off the gifts. In some cultures, this departure is marked by ringing a small bell, typically done in secret by one of the adult family members.

This tradition has since evolved into what we now call the Elf on the Shelf: a toy incarnation of one of modern-day Santa Claus’ elves that is placed on a shelf to oversee your children’s behaviour without being seen or touched.

St. Nicholas

Origins:

Many of those who celebrate Christmas to this day believe that the characterisation of Christmas stemmed from the life and attributes of Saint Nicholas of Myra, an early Christian bishop of Greek descent thought to have lived and worked from March 270 to December 343.

Around Myra, Saint Nicholas was widely regarded as ‘Nicholas the Wonderworker’, due in no small part to the many miracles he is said to have performed in his time. However, he was also known as a secret gift-giver, and his reputation for this became widespread among faithful Christians.

St Nicholas could often be seen adorned in a deep red clerical garb, carrying a book of scriptures in one hand while making a hand gesture for the sign of the cross with the other.

What is most intriguing about St Nicholas is the many ways in which he ‘saved’ his patrons: in one of the earliest and most famous incidents of his life, he is reported to have rescued three girls from forced prostitution, when went to the house under the cover of the night and gave them a sack of gold each night for three nights so that their father could pay a dowry for them.

Sack full of gold coins - Who is Kris Kringle - Open for Christmas

His generous and helpful nature was evident in everything that he did and this is, ultimately, what gave rise to the modern model of Sinterklaas (and later, Santa Claus)

St Nicholas Day:

Saint Nicholas Day – a.k.a. the Feast of Saint Nicholas – is practised between 5th and 6th of December by thousands in Western Christian countries such as Bulgaria, Belgium or the Netherlands. However, in Eastern Christian countries, St Nicholas’s day of feasting is typically celebrated on or around 19th December.

The traditions surrounding the day tend to differ depending on the country. For example, in Albania, Saint Nicholas has a different name, known as Shen’Kolle, and his feast is celebrated on the evening before 6th December, alongside the commemoration of the interring of his bones in Bari, typically performed on the evening before 9th May, known amongst Albanians as Shen’Kolli i Majit (Saint Nicholas of May). In the evening, the Albanians will gather to light candles and fast from eating meat until the feast of roasted lamb and pork served to guests after midnight.

Over in France, however, a donkey is laden with baskets that are filled with a variety of biscuits, sweets and other gifts, all to give to the children upon arriving at their door on 6th December. The whole family prepares for the arrival of both the donkey and the saint by telling each other stories about him.

One of the most popular stories told is of three children who wandered away, only to be lured into a butcher’s shop where he ends up killing them and salting them in a large barrel. However, St Nicholas comes to their rescue, reviving them and returning them to their families, earning him a solid reputation as a ‘protector’ of children.

Sinter Klaas

Origins:

Based entirely on the Greek bishop St Nicholas, Sinterklaas is the Dutch portrayal of the patron saint of children.

He is usually depicted as an elderly, serious and stout man with ice-white hair and a long, flowing beard. He can be seen wearing a long red cape over a traditional bishop’s tunic and a red stole, and often carries a gold-coloured ceremonial shepherd’s staff (a.k.a. ‘crosier’). In some depictions, he can also be seen carrying a big red book, which is said to contain records of all of the children that has been either ‘good’ or ‘naughty’ over the past year.

Santa's Nice List - Who is Kris Kringle - Open for Christmas

In this way, Sinterklaas is depicted in more of a religious way than some other representations, and closely resembles the appearance of the original Saint Nicholas.

However, one key difference in the Dutch portrayal of St Nicholas is that he is often assisted by Zwarte Piet – ‘Black Pete’ – an assistant dressed in Moorish attire and adorned in black paint, or blackface. Zwarte Piet first appeared in print in the 1850 piece ‘Sint-Nikolaas en zijn knecht’, or ‘St Nicholas and His Servant/Apprentice’, by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman.

Zwarte Piet is usually depicted in full, colourful dress based on the typical noble attire worn in the 1500s, with a lace collar (‘ruff’) and a feathered cap. Traditionally, he carries around a bag containing a Christmas gift and various candy sweets that he tosses around for the children. This tradition is said to have originated from the story of Saint Nicholas saving those three young girls from forced prostitution.

Furthermore, Zwarte Piet would also carry a birch rod or a chimney sweep’s broom fashioned from willow branches, with which he would spank the children that had been ‘naughty’. However, in modern celebrations of the Sinterklaas feast, he doesn’t carry the rod, and the children are no longer told that they’ll be taken back to Spain in his bag if they’ve been naughty.

Traditionally, Zwarte Piet’s face is thought to be black due to his origins as a Moor from Spain. However, other sources have said that his face is only blackened with soot whenever he climbs through chimneys to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve, in the name of Sinterklaas.

Santa Claus

Origins:

Santa Claus – also known as Kris Kringle or Kriss Kringle – is a widely popular modernised incarnation of the traditional Spirit of Christmas, and is said to have originated in Western Christian culture, bringing gifts to the homes of well-behaved children throughout Christmas Eve.

The first appearance of Santa Claus can be attributed to Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809), in which Sinterklaas was Americanised into what we now know to be ‘Santa Claus’, losing his bishop’s attire in the process. Initially, he was pictured as a big-bellied Dutch sailor in a green winter coat, carrying a pipe.

In the 1821 book, A New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve, an anonymous poem entitled Old Santeclaus with Much Delight was published, and described Santa Claus as riding a reindeer sleigh filled with presents for the children, for the first time.

Over time, Santa Claus evolved into the large, heavy-set gift-giver that we recognise today. His current appearance and attire can be attributed to the work of illustrator Thomas Nast, for Harper’s Weekly magazine in 1881. This was the first time that anyone had drawn Santa Claus as wearing a red suit, rather than a green/tan suit or red religious robes, as most traditional European countries had stuck with for years.

Nast’s original drawings depicted Santa Claus as being small enough to slide down chimneys but over time, his depiction developed into making Santa Claus appear ‘full size’.

Nast could also be responsible for the theory that Santa Claus lived and worked in the North Pole. This is because he included the caption ‘Santa Claussville, N.P.’ under one of his Christmas collage images in the 29 December 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The narrative detailing his life in the North Pole became well-known by the 1870s.

The oldest commercialised depiction of Santa Claus in a red and white suit was introduced by White Rock Beverages in 1915 in order to help sell their mineral water. Despite this fact, it is a widely held misconception that Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa Claus for Coca Cola Company’s advertisements in the 1930s was largely responsible for the popularisation of his standard red and white suit. While Coca-Cola’s portrayal of the jolly man has become the norm, he has been known to have worn this outfit since the first few years of the 20th century.

Images from the early 20th century depict Santa as making his toys from scratch in a small workshop. Eventually, with the introduction and popularisation of mass mechanised production, this idea evolved into a depiction in which Santa Claus was shown to be helped by numerous elves using assembly lines to produce the toys.

Traditionally, in the United States and Canada, children will leave a glass of milk and a plate of cookies out for Santa, intended for him to consume while he’s tottering around leaving the gifts for the children. They will also leave a carrot for Santa Claus’s reindeer and are often told that if they’re naughty, Santa will leave them a lump of coal in the place of actual gifts.

Milk and Cookies for Santa and Kris Kringle - Open for Christmas

Father Christmas

Origins:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the Father Christmas character as the personification of Christmas, and describes him as “a benevolent old man with a flowing white beard, wearing a red-sleeved gown and hood trimmed with white fur, carrying a sack of Christmas presents”.

However, this modern portrayal of Father Christmas adorned in red wasn’t always held.

Originally, Father Christmas was part of an old English midwinter festival and was generally regarded as a pagan figure who represented the coming of spring. He was often depicted as wearing a long green hooded cloak and a wreath of holly, ivy or mistletoe.

When Britain succumbed to Saxon rule between 500 and 600 AD, Father Christmas took on the attributes and appearance of ‘King Winter’ (a.k.a. Saxon ‘Father Time’). Adults would dress up as King Winter and would be welcomed into homes where he would sit by the fire and be fed various drinks and foods. It was widely regarded that by showing King Winter a great deal of kindness, you would be guaranteed to get a milder winter in return. As a result, Father Christmas soon became associated with the giving and receiving of bountiful gifts.

Santa Coming Through Chimney and Delivering Presents - Who is Kris Kringle - Open for Christmas

When the Vikings invaded Britain, they brought their midwinter traditions with them. The 20th – 31st December is known amongst Vikings and Norse folk as Jultid, the time when Odin adopts the character of Jul to visit Earth. During Jultid, Odin appears as a portly, aged man with a long white beard, and was often seen dressed in a long, blue hooded cloak, riding his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. It is widely thought that he would ride around towns on his horse, giving gifts to those he deemed ‘good’, and punishments to those he deemed ‘bad’.

With the arrival of the Normans in the 15th century, the morphing of King Winter to Odin, then Odin to Father Christmas, was complete. Our Father Christmas was ‘portly’ like Odin and developed a somewhat supernatural intuition and the ability to ‘sniff out’ the good and the bad in all people. He could also travel to lots of places within seemingly short periods of time, which is one of the explanations for how he delivers all of his presents in time for Christmas Day.

Since the late 15th century onwards, Father Christmas has been considered as representing the ‘spirit’ of Christmas, embodying all of the good cheer and benevolence that is typically associated with the celebratory day. However, in 1644, the Puritans banned Christmas and Father Christmas alongside it, fearing that this Pagan figure was a mark of bad luck.

It wasn’t until the Victorian era that Father Christmas was revived, embodying all of the festive cheer that Christmas had been associated with before. The Victorian Father Christmas was drawn as a jolly, pagan figure, adorned in a long, hooded coat that alternated between red, blue, green and brown.

By the mid-20th century, Father Christmas had become heavily influenced by the American culture and style of portrayal. Clement C Moore’s 1822 poem The Night Before Christmas describes him as ‘dressed all in fur from his head to his foot’, with a beard ‘as white as snow’ and ‘chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf’.

The final, most modern depiction of Father Christmas comes from the Coca Cola Company: in 1931 they ran an advert that showed the jolly man wearing a red suit for the first time. While Father Christmas had been seen wearing red before, in a homage to St Nicholas’s bishop’s robes, this was the first time that he had been commercialised and depicted wearing a red suit for Coca Cola’s mass audience to see.

Father-Christmas

Ever since then, red has been the standard colour for Father Christmas’s coat, and he finally became the vibrant, crimson creation we all know and love to this day.

Who is Kris Kringle? Our Final Thoughts

Though the original concept of Santa Claus was borrowed from folklore and various religious idols, the modern-day depiction of the jolly red giant can be said to have accumulated from the varied ideas that surrounded him from countries all around the world.

No matter how hard we try nowadays, we cannot imagine a Santa Claus – or a Kris Kringle – who doesn’t fly in sleigh or traverse each of our chimneys with his sack full of Christmas gifts.

Christmas, the traditionally-Christian holiday celebrating the supposed birth of Jesus, is celebrated in many ways across the globe and this is, in no small part, due to his generous, benevolent nature that we can’t help but praise.

However you celebrate the festive season of giving, we here at OpenforChristmas wish you a merry and joyful day, filled with wonderful memories, heaps of shining snow, and a loving family! Good cheer, tidings, and celebrations to all!

Related Articles on Christmas Traditions:

Who Is Kris Kringle? The International Spirit of Christmas

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