(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin has been thinking about how different Saint Nicholas traditions reflect the cultures they come from.
(MARTIN) Most European countries have a tradition of some kind of gift-giving personage around Christmas time, but he’s often quite different from the American version of Santa Claus. There’s England’s Father Christmas, who travels on a goat or white donkey and gives out Yule logs. There’s Norway’s Julesvenn who hides barley around the house. There’s Russia’s Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, who brings gifts to children on New Year’s. There’s Poland’s Star Man who shares the holiday with Saint Nicholas. And, since Martin Luther, Germany celebrates both Saint Nicholas and the Christkind.
Of course no self-respecting Frenchman would be caught dead with a belly that shakes like a bowlful of jelly, so the French Pere Noel is definitely slimmer and more distinguished than our roly-poly Saint Nick. He’s traditionally worn a monk’s hood and draws his long robe with a cord instead of Santa’s wide leather belt. The Pere Noel is still good with kids, but he’s not quite as droll. He’s a little aloof, and he often carries a bishop’s crosier, which is like a shepherd’s crook. His mount isn’t as flashy either; he comes to town on a donkey instead of landing reindeer on rooftops.
But the strangest thing about the French Saint Nicholas is his sidekick: Le Pere Fouettard, or Father Whipper. Some say he comes from a legend about an evil, cannibal butcher in a Saint Nicholas story. Others say that he comes from a burned effigy of a mean emperor. Regardless, everyone agrees on this: Le Pere Fouettard is the Anti-Santa.
Le Pere Fouettard is always dressed in black, and he sometimes appears with horns and a tail. He only keeps a list of who’s naughty, and he carries on his back a bag full of switches to thrash the bad kids while Saint Nick hands out presents to the good kids.
In the Netherlands, they call him Black Pete, and in Bavaria and Austria he’s known as Krampus, or “Hook”.
You might find this tradition a little mean-spirited, but it does give the holidays a certain Manichean balance, and most cultures do use bogeymen for some basic behavior modification. I mean, it’s practical when threatening a “time-out” just doesn’t do the trick.
Of course, this is all just a little too dark for our fun-loving American Christmas traditions. Our Santa doesn’t really give out coal any more, does he? And the lists he generates have more to do with credit cards than who’s been naughty or nice. In our hedonistic culture, Saint Nick is mostly about hawking commercial goods for advertisers.
And he’s been so successful that he’s steadily replacing the traditions in other countries. Unfortunately, it may not be long before there’s only one Santa left in the world: a kind of sad cultural amalgam to champion consumerism. And with Christmas starting earlier each year, thanks to global warming and early merchandising, Santa may yet trade in his white fur trim for a pair of shorts.
Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.