Gift giving has been part of this season for hundreds of years
- but not everyone is waiting for Santa
Italy - La Befana
La Befana has been bringing gifts to the children of Italy since the 13thC.
The tale is told that La Befana had the fortune to encounter the three Magi, or Wise Men as they followed the star to the birth of the Messiah. They told her of their holy mission. The old woman was so deeply inspired, they invited her to join them. At first, she rushed home to pack, excited that she would be one of the first to see the holy child. But as she packed, she realized how old she was and imagined the difficult travel ahead. In the end, she decided not to meet the Magi when they departed for she had decided she was too old to make the trip.
The next day, she was seized with regret that she had missed her chance. She tried to reach the Magi to ask them to wait for her but they had already returned to their quest. Her opportunity was gone.
Filled with regret, she decided that she would celebrate all the good children in her community. Since then, every January 5/6, La Befana tosses a huge canvas sack, filled with gifts like toys and chocolates, across her back and climbs on her broom. She travels from home to home, placing these tokens in the stockings hung upon hearths or in shoes that children leave out for this purpose on the night of January 5.
Sweden- The Tomte
Tomte- Swedish (Tonttu-Finnish) (Nisse – Norway) (Kobold- German)
Tomten are a race of spirit or magical nature that have been part of the Northern European world for many centuries. Some believe that the Tomte is the spirit of the person who cleared the land to create the homestead. Acting as solitary guardian, the Tomte remains to keep an eye on things.
Depicted as short, old men with impressive beards and often sporting a red cap, these domestic spirits work behind the scenes for the smooth function of the household, sometimes sneaking into the house to finish tasks or to clean up the place. If the cleanliness and upkeep of the home is neglected, it is a great insult to the Tomte.
If the Tomte was to become cross, he could cause all kind of trouble from misplacing tools to maiming livestock. To show one's appreciation for the Tomte's stewardship over the homestead, custom called for the household to leave out a bowl of porridge with butter for his pleasure. A happy Tomte keeps the family farm prosperous. These little stewards bring gifts to the family in the solstice season, leaving them at the front door.
Syria- The Littlest Camel
The 3 Magi traveled far to be at the birth of the holy child. Camels carried their possessions and the precious gifts they had brought to honour the new king. Among the camels was a youngster, smaller and less robust than the rest of his troop. Throughout the long journey, the littlest camel struggled to keep up, often losing faith that he would ever make it to see the divine child. But every time, the littlest camel would push himself onward, refusing to give up no matter what.
When the Magi arrived at the manger, the Christ Child looked into the soul of that little camel witnessing the loyalty and faith that had brought the beast to his side. Christ was so touched by the profound heart of the littlest camel that he granted two honours. The first was that the camel would have the delight of delivering gifts to children in celebration of the birth. The second gift was immortality, allowing the camel the privilege of bringing these gifts forever.
Children leave their shoes out, filled with hay for the littlest camel. In the morning, they find gifts in their shoes.
Germany- Das Christkind (Christ-child)
In the 1500's, Martin Luther initiated a break with the Catholic Church to establish what would become the Lutheran branch of Christianity. Among his many arguments against the ways of the church, the German theologian argued the only basis for Christian faith and doctrine was scripture. (“sola scriptura” Scripture Alone)
Luther's disdain for the plethora of saints that distracted the Catholics, in his opinion, from a focus on Christ meant that when Christmas rolled around, there was going to be a problem with ol' Saint Nicolas. This Saint was expected to drop off presents on the eve of his own celebration. (Feast of St Nicolas- December 6)
Luther substituted the Christkind, a mythic incarnation of the infant Christ, who brought gifts to the children on the last day of Advent (Christmas Eve- December 24) The Christkind, usually depicted as a blonde, winged child, was conceptually modeled on the innocence and purity of the Christ child himself.
The Christkind has never been seen. According to legend, if the children try to catch glimpse, the Christkind will never bring their home presents again. It is believed that when the Christkind departs a home, there is a sound like a tiny, sweet bell. Festive parents will claim to have heard this or may even ring a bell in the night to create the magic for their children.
The Christkind still rings a bell in Austria, Croatia, parts of Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Slovakia, Portugal, Hungary and Switzerland.