While we were driving through Orland Park one fine December day in 2014, we passed the Kris Kringle Haus, a holiday pop-up store specializing in European and American-made Christmas goods.*
It was obvious to The (then) Seven-Year-Old that this merry little store was just the place to do a bit of Christmas shopping, but one thing was a little confusing.
The Seven-Year-Old, curiously: “Who’s Kris Kringle?”
Mommyo: “That’s just another name for Santa Claus.”
The Seven-Year-Old: “Why do they call him that?”
Insert shrugging here. Even Google shrugs a bit at this question, I’ve found. The most common response is that the name Kris Kringle is essentially an American mispronunciation of the German name for the Christ Child, Christkind or Christkindl.
The Christkindl is the traditional gift-bearer in many parts of Europe, particularly Germany, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, and France. The Christkindl was first assigned the job of gift-giving at Christmas by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Martin Luther worked hard to replace the Catholic St. Nicholas with the Christkindl in order to shift the focus at Christmas back onto the birth of Christ. Sound familiar?
With the infant Jesus now doling out the gifts at Christmas, instead of St. Nicholas, the date on which the gift exchange took place naturally changed — from St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6) to Christmas Eve.
Although Martin Luther intended the Christkindl to remind Protestants of the infant Jesus, in practice, the legend of the Christkindl ended up resembling Santa Claus more than the infant born in Bethlehem. Children can never see him, the story goes. A taboo enforced by the dire parental warning that the Christkindl won’t leave the children any presents if they try to catch a glimpse of him while he’s in the house. Children are only allowed to come out when their parents tell them the Christkindl has completed the drop and has left again. (In some countries, the Christkindl rings a bell on his way out to tell the family it’s safe to come claim their gifts.)
Hmm… Wonder if the Christkindl maintains a nice and naughty list, too? Wait, what am I saying. OF COURSE HE DOES.
Or maybe not. After all, Martin Luther maintained that we are saved by faith alone, and not through good works. (My Catholic showed for a minute there, didn’t it?)
Anyway, when the German and other Protestant European settlers came to America, they brought the story of the Christkindl with them. They happily told their neighbors all about Him.
To which the English settlers responded in their oddly Canadian way, “Eh, eh, who’s that you say? Kris Kringle? Oh, you mean Father Christmas!”
And the Dutch settlers said in their even more oddly Canadian way, “Eh, eh, who’s that you say? Sinterklaas?”
Overhearing which, the English responded, “What? What? Who’s this Santa Claus?”
And so there was a grand conflation of names for the Christmas gift-bearer. Over time, the stories of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, and the Christkindl merged, at least here in America. The sprite-like child with the blond hair and the angel’s wings grew up, in a sense, as people reverted back to the image of a grown-up gift bearer.
Our current image of Santa Claus was personified by Thomas Nast in his famous 1881 drawing, and Santa’s alter ego as Kris Kringle codified in modern holiday lore by the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street.
Nowadays, Kris Kringle is most often used in America as an alternative name for Santa Claus. Kris Kringle is his name when he’s at home, so to speak. And its origin as a reference to the Christ Child is something we Americans can only find out about, if we google diligently enough.
*Much to our sadness, the Kris Kringle Haus has closed since this post was originally written.