Non-Santa Figures

We Americans think of Christmas associated with Santa Claus, and we don’t realize that other countries and cultures don’t have such a person.

The key figure of the Russian New Year is Ded Moroz, known as Grandfather Frost, or Father Frost, who wears a red caftan, somwhat like Santa’s suit, decorated with traditional embroidering and edged with white fluff, a red cap, white mittens and felt boots. He has a white beard and a ruddy nose. He walks with an icy staff with a sparkling star on its top and carries a red sack with presents for kids. But note, he comes at New Years.

Ded Moroz is accompanied by his fairy granddaughter Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, who helps him play with kids and present the gifts.  Snegurochka personifies frozen waters. She is an enigmatic maid wearing purely white garments. No other color is allowed by traditional symbolism.

In Germany, there is St. Nikolaus, who comes on December 6 (the Catholic name’s day for Nikolaus). He brings a sack of gifts for children who have been “good.” St. Nikolaus does not wear a red suit, although over the years the image of Santa Claus has spilled in and adulterated the imagery. St. Nikolaus is traditionally a Catholic bishop, so he wears the golden robes and the miter (bishop’s hat) and he also carries a staff.

Sometimes he brings a companion, Knecht Ruprecht (servant Ruprecht). Sometimes he is called Krampus (but that may actually be another figure all together). To picture Krampus, think of a Quasimodo like hunchback who serves St. Nikolaus but beats up “bad” children. Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus is the guy that children fear. Those who have not been “good” are taken away by Knecht Ruprecht in a big coal sack that he carries. Where those children are taken noone knows, but rest assured, a German child is deathly afraid of Ruprecht.

The good ending of a visit by St. Nikolaus is a present from him, and the good Knecht stays leering in the background with his whip and his coal sack.

I imagine the American Santa stems from his Russian and German counterparts, and he somehow made he to Christmas Eve and American chimneys, red suit and all.

One thought on “Non-Santa Figures

  1. Eric Petrie

    Thanks for this holiday update. What a Santa scholar you are, Norbert.

    Anyway, the name “Knecht Ruprecht” reminded me of one of Steve Martin’s funniest characters, one in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” During a formal dinner he asks permission to go to the bathroom. Then, after it permission is granted, he does not move from his chair, but makes a strange face. Then he says to the table, “Thank you.”

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