Santa Claus: The Christ Child in America
The Christ Child contributed very little to our contemporary image of Santa Claus. Unlike Santa Claus, who rides in a magical flying sleigh, the early American Christ Child traveled from house to house on a humble donkey. Children left out plates or baskets filled with hay for the Child’s mount. The Christ Child exchanged the hay for nuts, candy, and cookies.
By the early 1800s, however, the image of the Christ Child began to blur together with that of another European gift giver, the elderly St. Nicholas. Moreover, the German words for Christ Child, Christ-Kindel or Christ-Kindlein, began to slur as more non-German speakers attempted to pronounce these words. “Christkindel” turned into “Krist Kingle,” and later, into “Kriss Kringle.” In 1842 the publication of The Kriss Kringle Book cemented this pronunciation error and compounded it by using the name to describe a gift giver who seemed suspiciously like Santa Claus. Eventually, all that remained of the German Christ Child was the Americanized name “Kriss Kringle.” And even that was transformed into a nickname for Santa Claus.