They came bearing gifts. Christmas characters from around the world come to life. An old woman named Befana portrays the gift-giving role in Italy. Centuries ago when the Magi knocked on her door, she was too busy to go with them to the manger. Now, says the tale, Befana travels the roads, leaving gifts for children in hopes of redeeming her mistake.

GIFT-GIVERS of yuletide lore - Santa and such - swirl around the holiday season like so many snowflakes, similar yet individual. Some wear tunics; others robes. Some ride the wind; others journey on skis. Some are kindly; others pack a few pranks in their toy-filled sacks. In Sweden, gifts are supposedly bestowed by an elf who chooses a goat instead of a reindeer to pull his sled. In Denmark, there's a slightly naughty gnome. He gives presents, all right, but also plays tricks on people who don't toe the mark. An old woman named Befana portrays the gift-giving role in Italy. Centuries ago when the Magi knocked on her door, she was too consumed with chores to trek with them to the manger. So, says the tale, better late than never, Befana now travels the roads, leaving gifts for babes and children in hopes of redeeming her mistake. And, of course, there's old St. Nicholas, and the various characters spun from his legend (see story at right).

For the last three years, Vanessa PeGan has been creating life-size figures of such gift-givers from around the world in her studio in Lafayette, Ind.

Fifteen of her beautifully crafted figures are on display at the 47th annual ``Christmas Around the World'' festival in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The show, continuing through Jan. 2, also features 38 trees trimmed with handmade ethnic ornaments.

Mrs. PeGan, who received her fine arts degree from Purdue University, makes her figures from mannequin parts and papier-m^ach'e. She gives attention to the most minute detail - a dimple, a wrinkle, a short laugh line, even though these are often hidden by a froth of beard. When crafting the papier-m^ach'e heads, she sculpts a gooey mess of glue and paper - pushing, pinching, gouging. Then the drying.

Eventually, one sees a face of fantasy, yet gently human, too; silent, yet speaking of firesides somewhere far away. Her creations manage to lift the whole Santa tradition out of the commercial cauldron.

PeGan considers the concocting of suitable costumes - from boot to chapeau - to be the plum pudding portion of her work. All the gift-givers in her entourage boast antique or vintage attire; PeGan's husband, Pete, owns two antiques shops in Lafayette.

Together the PeGans scout flea markets, theatrical shops, and the attics of anyone who'll put out the welcome mat. When they display their own furniture and wares at antique shows, he tends the booth while she checks out competitors' stalls, always on a search for silk and velvet robes, wooden shoes, and this or that to go in a St. Nick sack.

``Without him [Pete], I wouldn't be able to do any of this,'' she says. ``Not just the costumes. But he helps me get the structure sound, assemble the arms and legs with screws and wood, even automotive body putty.'' The couple originally met in an architectural drawing class.

PeGan has no problems with Santa and his sort interfering with the true meaning of Christmas. She puts these mythical figures on a par with the tooth fairy and fairy tale characters.

``They're fantasy figures that children believe in for such a short time,'' she says, explaining that children themselves soon discern the difference; as for proper emphasis, that's up to parents.

Qualified to teach kindergarten through the 12th grade, PeGan sees her creations as educational springboards, introducing young people to the lore of other cultures.

Her studio is on the first floor of a Victorian house on a hill. With its gingerbread trim and white picket fence, the house could easily melt into the corner of a yuletide card. The studio's oak doors are always open, so the PeGan brood (Cassie, 7; Natalie, 5; Sam, 3; Vincent, 2) can whistle through or stake out a chair to ``help.'' For the most part, though, PeGan's artwork starts when the children's day is done: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. The process has its rough moments, she notes - as when her children open the oven door, expecting cookies but seeing a papier-m^ach'e head drying instead.

All in all, it takes PeGan about two months to complete one figure. ``Backs, fronts, sides, and even the tops must look good so they can be viewed from any angle,'' she says. This was particularly so when her gift-givers were shown last year at the Indianapolis Children's Museum. There, spectators saw the figures from a circular, multi-story ramp.

Beside exhibiting the figures, PeGan also sells them for commercial display. Prices range from $1,200 to $3,000 each.

Making yuletide gift-givers was never an artistic goal for PeGan. Actually, she had shelved all artwork to raise a family and help her husband with his antiques business. Then three PeGan children became critically ill - a siege and recuperative period that dragged into six months. She rarely left the house.

One day, to make her laugh, Pete brought home a present: a life-size Santa to add to her collection of small St. Nicks.

``But it was so awful. All synthetic. Nylon. With a fiberglass beard. I know my expression showed what I thought,'' she says. ``So Pete tossed me a challenge: `Make your own.''' And that's what she did. While her children rallied, she created her first gift-giver: the German Pelze-Nicol, who leaves switches and coal for nasty tots and goodies for the good.

What's next for PeGan? ``I think storybook characters. Those might lead children to books, and I'm big on reading,'' she says, bringing a pair of ruby red shoes from beneath her work table. And so, a first step for Dorothy of Kansas.

`Sinter Claes': from myth to marketing tool

Santa hasn't always been Mr. Roly-Poly with the jelly-belly laugh. Over the years, he's gained considerably - in both girth and mirth.

He's a character who has provided plenty of grist for authors and illustrators. And what better pawn for the ad game? In such hands, this fantasy man has not only put on pounds, but he has also switched his garb, trading a robe for a fur-trimmed tunic and cap. And he tossed away his staff for a toy-filled pack.

The Santa of today has a complicated family tree, but suffice it to say he's a chip off the old St. Nicholas tradition, which tells of a pious man, lean and somber. The legends of St. Nicholas came to the New World with the Dutch in the 1600s. Back then, the Dutch children had a nickname for their St. Nicholas: Sinter Claes.

But Sinter Claes, or Santa Claus, had a popularity problem in America in those early days. Various religions shunned Christmas celebrations of any sort, and commercialism had made no inroads.

Eventually, though, authors picked up the Santa Claus cause. In the early 1800s, Washington Irving - well known for his ``Legend of Sleepy Hollow'' - penned a book that solidified the St. Nicholas story.

Then along came Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote ``A Visit From St. Nicholas'' for his children in the 1820s. His poem spells out Santa's antics and appearance in vivid detail. He was now plump and jolly, squeezing down chimneys to stuff stockings when ``not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.'' Moore's poem appeared in both newspaper and books, bringing Santa to more and more family firesides. Fame was now not far away.

Next came Thomas Nast's renditions. Nast, the political cartoonist who gave the Republicans their elephant and the Democrats their donkey, gave Santa a more rotund tummy, a home in the North Pole, a workshop, and a long list of naughty and nice children. Nast's first Santa illustration was published in 1863. For more than 20 years, the cartoonist drew an annual picture of the character.

By the end of the 19th century, Santa was firmly tied to Christmas, which had been legalized as Dec. 25 in all states.

Artist Vanessa PeGan displays three life-size versions of the changing Santa at the current yuletide exhibition in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. -30-{et

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