In Germany, a Christmas-season contest: Santa vs. St. Nicholas

As commerce spreads, Germans seek lost element of charity.

Peter Hahne does not like Santa Claus. In fact, this German television celebrity is promoting a "Santa Claus Free Zone," calling on people to distribute anti-Santa stickers.

The problem, as Mr. Hahne sees it, is that American-style Santas are crowding out Saint Nicholas, the traditional Christmas icon of this hilly Germany village named after the 4th-century bishop.

"Santa is a symbol of consumption," Hahne says. "Nicholas was a real bishop [who] taught us what's still very true today: giving does not make us poorer. It makes us richer."

To many Germans, Santa's spread is an unwelcome reminder of the encroachment of American commercialism into Europe.

"People are starting to become critical of commercialism in every respect," says Hermann Bausinger, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Tübingen.

Indeed, Hahne's lament has struck a chord: Across Germany, initiatives are sprouting to push commerce out of Christmas.

Protestant churches throughout Germany this year launched a "Christmas in December" initiative, selling Advent calendars - minus chocolate or cartoon figures - by the hundreds of thousands.

"The demand shows that people are yearning for quietness, spirituality, and a sense of meaning again," says Bishop Margot Käßmann, of Hannover, Germany.

The village of Rattenberg in nearby Austria isn't even allowing commercial stands during its Christmas events this year. Instead of focusing on gingerbread cookies, there will be songs, story telling, and a live nativity scene going through the village to "go back to what Advent means originally," says Gertie Doblander, Rattenberg's Christmas events coordinator.

But guarding the holiday is getting harder. Every year, Christmas decorations come earlier. And Santa's red suit is obscuring the emphasis on the charity that St. Nicholas embodied centuries ago as a monk in what is now Turkey.

Rarely seen years ago, Santa Claus is on the march here, on wrapping paper, television ads, or as chocolate figurines filling supermarket shelves.

"Christmas has switched from being only a celebration within the family and the church to being a public event starting late in November and going on through January," says Mr. Bausinger.

Especially troubling, say villagers here, is the shift in tone of the letters children send to Saint Nicholas on his namesake holiday Dec. 6.

"In these letters, children show they're thinking of somebody else," says Sabine Gerecke, who has read the 4,000 letters flooding her village so far. "That's the spirit of Christmas."

One child wrote to say he's struggling with shyness. "Dear Nicholas," Adrian wrote, "Can you give me a bit of courage, please?" Tobias and Sebastian wrote to say thank you. "Among all the presents you gave us last year," the two brothers wrote, "the most beautiful was our little brother Felix." And Michael has pledged reform. "St. Nicholas," the rambunctious second grader promised, "I'm going to get better."

But missives like these are becoming rare, volunteers say. More children are writing gift wish lists, addressed to Santa.

The myth of Santa Claus evolved from the fusion of two figures: gift-bearing Saint Nicholas and the representation of the infant Jesus known as "Christkindlein" (Christ child), which later became "Kriss Kringle." After Dutch immigrants brought Sinter Klaas to the US, German immigrant Thomas Nast drew a lasting image of a man with the white beard and sparkling eyes. Then in the early 1930s, Coca Cola, in need of a spokesman to boost sales, tapped the merry figure, completing his path from saint to salesman.

Gerecke doesn't believe anti-Santa stickers will bring children nearer to the heart of Christmas. But telling them the story of the real, charitable Saint Nicholas, she says, will help keep the spirit alive.

"Christmas is a time when one looks inside oneself," says Phillip Tengg, a vocational teacher who six years ago started Pro-Child Christ, a group based in Innsbruck, Austria, that promotes traditional celebrations of Christmas. "It's something for the heart and not only for the eye."

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