Museum wants UNESCO listing for German Father Christmas

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013. Filed under: Christmas Destinations Food & Dining Holidays Home & Garden
The German Christmas Museum's director Felicitas Hoeptner argues today's Santa Claus is based on a German gift-giver who meted out both treats and punishment, but that knowledge of the figure's origins is fading away. ┬ęSteve Cukrov/Shutterstock.com

The German Christmas Museum’s director Felicitas Hoeptner argues today’s Santa Claus is based on a German gift-giver who meted out both treats and punishment, but that knowledge of the figure’s origins is fading away.
┬ęSteve Cukrov/Shutterstock.com

(BERLIN-AFP) – A German museum has applied for UNESCO heritage status for the country’s traditional Father Christmas, saying he is under threat from the cheery version of Santa Claus popularised globally by Coca-Cola.

The German Christmas Museum’s director Felicitas Hoeptner argues today’s Santa Claus is based on a German gift-giver who meted out both treats and punishment, but that knowledge of the figure’s origins is fading away.

“Children only know about Santa Claus, because he’s smiling, he brings gifts, he’s a nice man, and with different marketing campaigns, he’s popular all around the world,” Hoeptner told AFP by phone from Rothenburg, Bavaria, where her museum is located.

“People forget about those old German traditions.”

Hoeptner has applied for UNESCO “intangible cultural heritage” status for the German Father Christmas, or “Weihnachtsmann,” as well as his symbolic predecessor St. Nicholas, based on a 4th-century Greek bishop, and the gift-bearing Christ Child.

Father Christmas was developed in Germany during the Protestant Reformation, as a secular replacement for the Catholic St. Nicholas, Hoeptner said.

As the church did away with saints, “there was a need for a new gift-bringer, a new symbol,” Hoeptner said.

According to Hoeptner, Father Christmas took his popular physical form from a 19th century Munich magazine illustration featuring a stern-looking man with a full beard, long coat and hood, who walked through the city streets with a Christmas tree and punished naughty children with a stick.

The character was brought into the popular American imagination by the German immigrant illustrator Thomas Nast in the late 1800s, Hoeptner said.

The origins of Santa Claus’ red coat and hat are debated, but Hoeptner ascribes his modern look, and perpetually jolly nature, as an invention of Coca-Cola marketing campaigns.

“You never find Santa Claus looking serious, or being grim. He will never ask the children, ‘Have you really been good in the past year?’” Hoeptner said, or require children to recite a poem before receiving presents, as in the German tradition.

Hoeptner argues the educational nature of the holiday has been lost with a commercial Santa, and hopes a UNESCO listing would raise awareness about historical Christmas traditions among Germans.

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