What is the Weihnachtsmann? A German Christmas Gift- Giver

This is the time of year where things can get a little confusing for some people. In Germany there is St Nicholas, the Christkind, AND the Weihnachtsmann... but Who is bringing the presents? What is the Weihachtsmann? To make it even more confusing, you add in mixed families here in the US where one parent grew up with Santa Claus! How do they all fit together? (Funny thing, it’s mostly adults that are confused, children seem to have no problem reconciling three or four different gift givers.) Fortunately, there is an explanation and you can trace all of them back through a few hundred years of history.

What is the Weihnachtsmann

Although many people think that the Weihnachtsmann, the secular gift giver (secular means non-religious) is a result of American influences, the term Weihnachtsmann in Germany actually came about around the same time Santa Claus did in the US.  In 1835,  Heinrich Hoffmann (best known as the author to der Struwwelpeter) wrote a Christmas Carol called “Morgen Kommt der Weihnachtsmann” (sung to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). And painter Moritz von Schwind created a woodcut in 1847 for the Münchener Bilderbogen called “der Weihnachtsmann”, of a bearded man carrying a Christmas Tree. (Der  Weihnachtsmann doesn’t look very jolly). This image of a cloaked and bearded man, carrying a Christmas Tree, would stick for a long time. Although the color of the cloak sometimes changed from brown to green, and even lavender.

(Quick aside- A Bilderbogen is a sheet of printed images. Not quite a newspaper or magazine, but there were images with descriptions beneath them. People would collect the images, even using them for collage. The closest equivalent in English would be a Broadside… a single sheet of paper printed up with notices or information that would be put up in public. Basically, the German Weihnachtsmann image came from a poster that was sold and distributed in Munich)


Der Weihnachtsmann, by Moritz von Schwind 1847 for Munchener Bilderbogen Public Domaine


By the 1840s, the “trendsetting Bourgeoisie” of Germany, who were stepping away from the church,  adopted the Weihnactsmann. The bearded man was their official Christmas Gift Giver, as well as the one who handed out punishment. Although he still carried a tree in many images, he was also depicted with a sack of gifts, and a rod for punishment.

Today, children in Germany will write letters to the Weihnachtsmann, who is a sort of Father Christmas/Santa Claus figure. And in some houses he is the one who brings the gifts on the 24th.

Who are the Other Gift Givers?

I feel like it would be a good time to back up a little bit, to give background to St Nicholas and the Christkind, and to the celebration of Christmas itself, so that we can see how it all ties together.

Before the Protestant Revolution in the 16th century, Christmas wasn’t a gift giving occasion. Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) was a time of fasting, of preparing for the birth of Jesus. Yes, there were Christmas Markets, but these were occasions where people could stock up for the long winter ahead. The 12 days of Christmas, from December 24th until January 6th (the Epiphany) were a time of celebration and feasting. No Christmas tree, no presents. Children got treats for the Feast Day of St Nicholas.

St Nicholas day

St Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra (in Turkey), and the patron saint of children. Usually he’s depicted wearing a white robe and bishop’s mitre (pointy hat) carrying a book filled with lists of children’s names, and notes on their behavior. He even visits some children, along with one of his companions, to check if the list is accurate, and maybe quiz the child on a few Bible verses. (The companions are different, depending on which part of Germany you are in. Could be Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus or another. Learn all about them here) On the night of December 5th, children in Germany put their shoes out… maybe filled with a bit of straw or a carrot to feed St Nicholas’s donkey… and go to sleep hoping for a visit. If they’ve been good, when they wake up on December 6th, St Nicholas’s feast day, and find that their shoes would have been filled overnight with sweets, and maybe small toys.

The Christkind

After the Protestant Revolution, Martin Luther wanted to steer away from the veneration of Saints, even gift giving ones like St Nicholas. But, as a father himself, he must have realized that taking away a celebration with presents would be horrible for morale. (I have this vision of his wife pulling him aside and reminding him how difficult an unhappy child could be). Now, instead of St Nicholas bringing treats on the 6th, Luther presented the idea that the Christkind, the Christchild himself, would bring gifts on the evening of his birthday, Dec 24th.

Over time, the Christkind caught on in Catholic areas as well. (And here I see little kids coming home to their Catholic parents and saying “Why does the Christkind go to Steffen, but not to our house?”). Now instead of an infant, she was depicted as a blond curly haired angel.

This is when things start getting mixed up.

Some images have the golden haired Christkind traveling on a white horse from house to house, and some have the Christkind traveling with St Nicholas , as one of his companions. And in Catholic areas, like Nuremberg, the Christkind becomes an important symbol at the December Markets, which become known as Christkindlmarkts. But then, in many Protestant areas, the Weihnachtsmann was taking over the gift giving.

Please note, none of this seems to be set in stone… it seemed to depend on the family, and how they chose to treat the event. Our family was mixed up, since my mother was Catholic and father was Lutheran. We spoke of the Christkind and the Weihnachtsmann… 

Santa Claus joins the Party

In 18th and early 19th century America, Christmas looked a lot different than it does today. Puritans and Quakers even outlawed the celebration in New England (you would be fined 5 Schillings for so much as mentioning it!). Fortunately, over time, the laws were abandoned, although boisterous celebrations were still frowned upon. It was immigrants from Germany  who introduced Christmas gift giving and Christmas Trees in their communities, and by the mid-1800s it had spread throughout the States. Christmas finally became a federal holiday under President Grant in 1870.

But it was the New Yorkers, and Washington Irving, who popularized Santa Claus.

In 1624, the Dutch settled on the Island of Manhattan, calling it New Netherlands, and established a fort called New Amsterdam. By 1664, the English had taken over, but the Dutch Settlers remembered their roots, and still came together to celebrate on St Nicholas Day. After the American Revolution, the New York Historical Society decided to remember their Dutch roots, and made St Nicholas the Patron Saint of the city, and of their society. Then in 1809 Washington Irving wrote a story called “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” which featured a jolly St Nicholas figure called Sankte Claus, who dropped gifts down the church’s chimney.

The name Santa Claus swirls in controversy. Where did it come from? Some say it’s from the Dutch “Sinter Klaas”, but most likely it’s old-German dialect for Saint Nicholas, “Sankte Claas”. (Oddly, the German Christkind evolved into Santa’s other name “Kris Kringle”).

what is the weihnachtsmann

Writers like Irving, and later Clement Clarke Moore are credited with shaping how Americans view Christmas. Irving published his short story about Sankte Claus in 1812, and gave his character a sled drawn over the trees by horses. Then in 1821 William Gilley, introduced a Scandinavian twist to the Santa myth when he published a small book called “A New year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The children’s Friend”. Santeclaus’s sled was now being pulled by reindeer. It was Clement Clarke Moore who cemented the story with his 1822 poem  “An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicolas“.

But we can thank German immigrant Thomas Nast for finally putting a face and red suit on the American Santa Claus. Nast was born in Landau in der Pfalz (in the Rhineland Palatinate), and arrived in the US in 18 at age 6. A talented artist, Nast began working for Harper’s Weekly at age 18. While his drawing and caricature skills made him the “Father of American Cartoon”, he is best known for drawing Santa Claus. Apparently Nast drew on his childhood memories of Belsnickl, to bring Moore’s poem to life. But it was more than just an illustration for a poem, between 1863 and 1886 thirty-three different Santa Claus illustrations were published in Harper’s by Thomas Nast. (Cute side note- Nast’s Santa was a self-portrait, that’s why he’s so fat).

what is the weihnachtsmann

[http://www.utexas.edu/features/2010/12/06/christmas_america/ ‘Santa’s Portrait’ byThomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, 1881] Public Domain

And it’s this image… the Santa Claus in a red fur trimmed suit and hat, black boots and big belly, that is now traveling back to Germany.

The Weihnachtsmann

Our friend the Weihnachtsmann used to be an old man in a cloak carrying a tree, then he carried a bag of toys and a rod for punishment. Today, thanks to movies, television, and commercial advertising, he’s often blurred with the American Santa Claus. Complaints about commercialism and excess during the Christmas Season have been an issue for hundreds of years, so we can’t lay that all at Santa’s black booted feet. Christmas is what you make it.

As for how to resolve the Gift Giver issue in your home? I leave that to you. St Nicholas, the Christkind, the Weihnachtsmann, and even Santa Claus all have room in a child’s heart.


2 thoughts on “What is the Weihnachtsmann? A German Christmas Gift- Giver

  1. You did a fine job relating the many and sometimes conflicting bits of info re: Weihnachtsmann. Good for you. I thoroughly enjoy your newsletter; bleib gesund und munter und mache weiter: Gesundes Neu-Jahr!

    1. Vielen Dank! Frohe Weihnachten und ein guten Rutsch!

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