The informant spent the early years of her life in Venezuela, but her family moved to the United States when she was 9 years old. She only remembers some of her life in Venezuela.
The informant shared this story while having a lunch break during a leadership retreat. People were discussing when and how they discovered that Santa Claus wasn’t real and she laughed and explained that at the age we were finding out that Santa wasn’t real, she was just learning that the idea of Santa even existed.
[I was unable to get a direct transcription of what was said]
The informant said that she had never heard of Santa Claus until she got older when talking to other American children. Instead, on Christmas, her parents told her that her presents were given to her by the Baby Jesus himself (Niño Jesús). She would have to place her shoes in front of the nativity scene, and the next morning her presents would be on top of them.
The informant talked about this tradition as if it was humorous because of how different it is from American tradition, but in a way that celebrated that difference rather than making fun of it. It seemed like she is able to use her Venezuelan Christmas traditions as a way differentiate herself from her purely American peers and connect herself with her Venezuelan upbringing, even though she seems very much American now, having spent over half of her life in the U.S.
The legend: “In Italy theres this old woman called La Befana who has magical powers and she gives children gifts on January 5th. If you’re nice you get gifts but if you’re mean you get coal. January 5th is the Epiphany Day, I don’t know what it is but it’s some type of like God revelation or something.”
The informant is half-Italian (mom) and half-German (dad) and grew up in Belgium. She moved to the United States at 11 years old, and now resides in Canada where she attends a university. She heard this legend growing up from her mom and Nonna (her grandmother). I asked her if she ever believed in La Befana’s existence, and she said that she “did at one point because once Nonna brought it up and I was scared of her because she’s a scary old woman witch.” La Befana sounds like other gift-giving figures around the Winter Solstice, such as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, etc. January 5th is just around Christmas, so it matches with other Winter Solstice celebrations. People already celebrated the Winter Solstice, before Christianity made it a Christian holiday, so it makes sense for Italy to have its own version of the celebration. It’s also just after New Year’s Day, which means that Epiphany Day also represents a celebration of new beginnings; good children can celebrate the past year by receiving gifts and going forward into the next year being good again. Bad children can reflect on their bad decisions in the past year in order to strive for better in the coming year. Although La Befana can be a benevolent figure, she is presented as an old witch, which scares children into being “good,” reflected by the informant’s fear of the witch.
ABOUT THE INFORMANT:
My informant is a mother of three who lives just outside of Boston with her husband of over 30 years. She is originally from Cape Cod, the part of Massachusetts that is full of beaches and is a world known tourist destination. She is a lover of all thing water; she has worked extensively in water policy and water pollution as an environmentalist.
Interviewee: My dad never did any Christmas shopping for anybody. He always left it all to Mom. As he got older, I guess he got much more free time. He would spend all year going to flea markets. Just searching for Christmas gifts. Sometimes something would catch his eye and he would not even know what it was. The year I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing tennis, I got Tennis For Dummies.
He would just give everyone a massive bag full of stuff. A bag for each person. All this cheap stuff he found at these yard sales and Salvation Armies; sometimes it was thoughtful, but most of it was crap.
It was the worst for the people dating into the family. When Lynn, my sister-in-law, first starting coming to the family Christmas, she got all these random things that no one knew anything about. Weird pieces of wood. A styrofoam ball. But she just took it and said thank you, trying to be polite, while he was just laughing because he knew that he gave crap. But then she surprised us all one year when she turned around and glued it together and created a figurine. Then she gave it to him.
We would come home with so much crap, we couldn’t keep it all, but I do have a farting Santa doll.
Interviewer: What about when he got sick?
Interviewee: When he passed away, we wanted to keep it alive. It was so much fun. We couldn’t all give everyone presents; that was just too much. But we all picked names and gave personalized stockings with funny and outrageous, sometimes nice, gifts to the person.
Interviewer: And you still do it?
Interviewee: Yeah, I mean, no one wanted to give it up. It is hard though. It is all tailored to them. There are no gift certificates. You have to really go out and think about them. It’s nice, even if it is crap. It’s crap tailored for them. Thoughtful crap.
There is so much stress around Christmas. It clearly has become so overwhelmingly commercial and impersonal, that I feel like what her father was doing was almost the anti-version of that. Not to be a hipster or part of a counter culture or whatever, but because that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to give hand picked crap. Just for the joke or shock. Because he was such a strong figure in this family and because he would not stop doing it, it became a tradition.
When he died, that is when it took on a whole new dimension. Not wanting to give him or it up they modified it, so that people kept getting these personalized stockings. Even though he was gone, the stockings and laughter did not have to go. That is most likely the sentimental aspect of it. On a practical level, it is a really good way to make sure that people get gifts for Christmas that feel as though they were personally chosen for them. An added benefit.
Informant: “So Saint Nikolaus Day is on the 6th of December. And that is just Germany though, and I’m not sure about other European countries. I know that for example, people in Spain do it on the 6th of January. I don’t know why we choose that date, I’m sure it has some religious background, as everything in that time. But I don’t know why we celebrate it in December and not January. Maybe it is to get people excited for Christmas. It’s kind of the beginning, like the very first Christmas event. So when St. Nikolaus Day arrives, everybody is getting into the Christmas mood. And it somehow commences the Christmas time. So on the evening of the 5th of December, children have to clean their shoes, like their boots, and place them on the windowsill. But only very clean shoes are allowed to be on there.”
Interviewer: “And that is to show that the children are good children?”
Informant: “Well yeah, that is part of it. And you clean you shoes to ask St. Nikolaus to put small treats inside, overnight. So on the 5th of December, children place their shoes there and go to bed. And on the 6th in the morning, they wake up and check their boots to see if something has been put in there. Usually, if the children have behaved fine over the year, St. Nikolaus brings treats. But they are special treats… like walnuts, and also oranges, the small ones… clementines? And also some chocolate stuff. And if you are bad, you would get sticks and stuff. I don’t know, I never had that. But they have a special name… a rod? And that would be to express that the child was misbehaving. And St. Nikolaus Day is only for children. Oh! And you can put spices on the oranges, like cinnamon or nutmeg? And it is arranged in small stars, like they put stars on the oranges. And usually the boots are supposed to be red boots.”
Interviewer: “Why red?”
Informant: ” I have no idea. Probably the same reason… that the Christmas man… how is he called?”
Interviewer: “Santa Claus.”
Informant: “Santa Claus! Right. Because he is wearing a red coat.”
Saint Nikolaus Day is very similar to the tradition we have in America of hanging stockings over the fireplaces to get little gifts from Santa Claus. Much like our stocking tradition, Saint Nikolaus Day puts a high emphasis on rewarding good children and punishing bad children. In both traditions, good children receive gifts for their good behavior and bad children receive something that is symbolic of their naughty behavior such as coal in American tradition or a rod, which is used to spank bad children, in German tradition. Saint Nikolaus is essentially the German version of Santa Claus.
In addition to what my informant told me, I also found some more interesting information on the legend in my research. Saint Nikolaus, or Saint Nicholas as he is commonly called, was known to leave coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Sometimes a Saint Nikolaus impersonator would visit children at their school or at their home and ask them if they had been good, helpful, and polite. The impersonator would then check his golden book to for the child’s record to see if they were right. This is much like our idea that Santa Claus is ‘making a list, checking it twice, and he’s gonna find out who’s naught and nice’. During the interview I asked if she knew about the Krampus, which is a demon who accompanies Saint Nikolaus and takes away naughty children to eat them for Christmas dinner. She said she had never heard of the Krampus before. I thought this was odd because I was sure that the Krampus was a German legend, but I was only half right. The Krampus is legend found in the Alpine regions of Europe such as Austria and has it’s roots in Germanic folklore, which is why I thought the Krampus was a part of German tradition.
In my research I was not able to determine why the 6th of December is the chosen date for Saint Nikolaus Day, but I agree with what my informant said about Saint Nikolaus Day marking the start of the Christmas season. In America we seem to start Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving, because this is when people generally start shopping for Christmas gifts. I do not know why Saint Nikolaus Day is done earlier than Americans version of the day, which is on Christmas Day when children open their stockings that they had set out the night before on December 24th. However I agree with her in that Saint Nikolaus Day is a great way to start of the Christmas spirit and get into the gift giving mood.
My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany. She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree. She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.
-Each person has to bring in one present that is worth $20
-Once a present has been taken three times, the present can no longer be taken.
1) Everybody picks a number out of the hat. That number determines the order for gift picking
2) The first person picks a present from the gift pile and opens it.
3) When it is the second person’s turn, he or she can pick to open another present from the gift pile or pick the gift that the first person opened.
-If person #2 takes the gift from the first person, the first person has to open another present from the gift pile.
4) After that, each subsequent person has the choice of either choosing to open another present from the gift pile or taking one of the opened presents from the previous people.
-If a person’s opened gift is take, then that person then also has the choice between opening another gift or taking another person’s gift.
5) The game ends when the last gift is opened.
My informant told me that White Elephant is a Christmas tradition at her household. She adopted this tradition after she attended a Christmas party seven years ago at a friend’s house. She liked the game so much that she decided to incorporate it into her Christmas celebration. Every Christmas, my informant hosts a Christmas dinner for her entire extended family. This game was quickly accepted by everyone and has now become a yearly tradition in her household.
I believe that this game must have started as a way for people to save money on buying gifts. My informant told me that after adopting the tradition, all of the family members have stopped buying gifts for every single relative. Instead, they have all just focused on finding that one gift for the white elephant game. At the same time, my informant believes that the game is a great way to bring people together as it is very fun to see what gifts are taken and the reactions of those who gets their gifts taken.
Currently, NBC has ordered a new game show based on this game that will be hosted by Howie Mandel.
Hibberd, James. “NBC Orders New Howie Mandel Game Show: ‘White Elephant'” EW.com. 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://insidetv.ew.com/2012/04/17/howie-mandel-white-elephant-nbc/>.
The And Gamea game on Christmas Eve where everyone gets in a circle and passes little gifts around every time the word and is mentioned from the book The Night Before Christmas
The informant told me that every Christmas Eve, his family gets together with his wifes side of the family at one of the relatives house. After they eat dinner, but before they open presents they play what they call The And Game. Basically the host of the party buys an array of little gifts (like $5 dollar Best Buy gift certificates or boxes of chocolate) and wraps them up and gives one to each individual. They sit in a circle and pass the gifts around every time the word and is mentioned in the story The Night Before Christmas. One of the kids reads the story, making sure to emphasize each and, so that the passing goes at the right pace. There are enough ands in the story so that you dont end up with the original gift you started with. He mentioned that they have been doing it for over 20 years now, and that he isnt sure how it exactly started, but that every year they would read the book, and the game evolved out of it. He also said that it has become a pretty funny game because the children are getting older and the men like to try and unwrap the gifts before the game is over, so that you can peek at the gift. The men were unwrapping the gifts so much, that the informants wife decided to double wrap the and gifts one year, with packaging paper (virtually un-breakable) as the first layer and wrapping paper on top. When they attempted to unwrap the gifts, all they saw was brown paper.
I think that this ritual represents the many different customs people have around the holidays. The holiday season is full of different traditions families participate in, whether it be dealing with presents, Christmas decorations, or Christmas dinner. I think this particular ritual was born out of a tradition of reading the book, but when people got bored of the book or little kids got antsy to open the presents, the family adapted the tradition to a more interactive experience while keeping the tradition alive. This custom seems unique, as there is no real tie to it in anything online, however it does have similar elements to Hot Potato, in which a hot potato is passed around the group with the last person holding the potato when the music is turned off being out of the game.