|SSt. Joseph's Church, Detroit, Michigan|
Who brings the gifts? A cautionary
In the early days of the European settlement of America, as today, many English-speaking children got their gifts from an imaginary St. Nicholas figure, the forerunner of our Santa Claus. Meanwhile, the German tradition was, and still is, that children were told that the Christ child brought their gifts on Christmas Eve.
Kids got together and they talked. They all got Christmas presents, and the English-speaking kids said they got them from St. Nick, while the German kids thought theirs came from the baby Jesus, who was called the Christkindlein or Christkindl in their language. In A History of American English, the famous American linguist J.L. Dillard notes, "In America, the Germans brought in not only the Christmas tree but their name for the new-born Savior, Christkindlein or Christkind'l from which Americans made Kriss Kringle." And we all know that now Kris Kringle is another name for Santa Claus. After all, which figure would a child imagine was physically more capable of hauling a sack of presents? Thus, children must have assumed that their German playmates were just using a different name for St. Nicholas, and a German name for the child in the manger became corrupted into another moniker for Santa.
You'd imagine something like this could happen only once in history, but since the fall of communism, in Eastern Europe, many kids are confused again. Like the Germans, the Czechs, for example, have always told their children that their Christmas gifts come from the Christ child, who is called Jezisek in their language. (St. Nick comes on a different day in an old ritual meant to terrify kids into being good.) After the collapse of Marxism in that country, a flood of American TV shows moving east slammed into a torrent of Taiwanese toys coming west. Previously almost unheard of in that country, Santa Claus was suddenly everywhere.
Five years ago, when I went back on a visit to the town of Marianske Lazne, where I had lived for three years in the early 1990s, a little Czech girl I know, named Jana, had gotten a plastic statue of Santa Claus at Christmas. When showing it to me, she said, "In your language he's called Santa Claus, and in our language he's called Jezisek." I explained to her that the two were not the same, but she insisted they were. When I cheerfully told her that Santa Claus was an old man, and Jezisek (the Christ child) was a newborn baby, it was too much for Jana to take. Tears welling up in her eyes, she sobbed to her mother that I had said Jezisek was a baby.
Jana's mother was startled that her daughter seemed to know nothing of her own nation's Christmas traditions -- let alone the identity of Jesus -- and she quickly took the girl to church to view the crèche and hear the story.
As Christmas comes, make sure the children of your acquaintance know who is who.