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Culture

Targeting Santa

Groups in Germany and Austria have launched campaigns protesting the commercialization of Christmas. The target of their ire is Santa, an American import who they say doesn't represent what the holiday is all about.

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Not here please

Bettina Schade says she doesn't have anything personal against Santa Claus. In fact, she likes a lot of things about today's celebrations of Christmas -- the lighted trees, the gold ornaments, the silver stars.

But all the material things, the hectic rush to buy gifts, and the ubiquity of the bearded man in the red suit are taking away from the core meaning of Christmas. She'd like to see things changed, or at least toned down a little.

"The Christian origins of Christmas, like the birth of Jesus, have receded into the background," she said. "It's becoming more and more a festival that is reduced to simply worldly gifts and to commerce."

She is part of a campaign called the Frankfurter Nicholas Initiative, founded by a Roman Catholic priest in Frankfurt, Eckhard Bieger. Alarmed by the growing commercialization of Christmas in Germany, he launched the initiative that's aimed at putting St. Nicholas, a fourth-century monk, back in the Christmas spotlight where he used to be.

It's an uphill battle, however, since St. Nicholas' successor, the American-inspired jolly old St. Nick, or Santa Claus, has been edging the miter-wearing historical figure out of the German Christmas landscape of late. German kids do set out their shoes on Dec. 6 for St. Nicholas to fill them with sweets, but that holiday now pales in comparison with Santa's sleigh-ride night.

Nikolaus

Chocolate Santa dressed up at St. Nicholas

To counter this trend, the Frankfurt Initiative along with another Catholic organization, the Bonifatiuswerk, has launched pro-Nicholas campaign. They show kids how to turn chocolate Santas into chocolate Nicholas figures and have been handing out stickers in stores and at Christmas markets featuring a bar cutting across an image of Kriss Kringle. It proclaims the area a "Santa-Free Zone."

"Santa Claus is a creation of the advertising industry and Coca-Cola to further commercial interests," Bieger told Reuters.

Santa's origins

The image of Santa most known today -- fat, white bearded and in a red suit -- is indeed a creation of the Coca-Cola company, which was looking for a new figure to use in its advertising campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s.

Weihnachtsmann

Santa Claus, inspired by Coke

A Swedish-American artist, Haddon Sundblom, created the jolly, benevolent character for Coke based on a previous figure created for Harper's Weekly in the 19th century by Thomas Nast, a German immigrant to the United States.

For the small but vocal anti-Santa movement, which has also gained momentum in Austria, Santa Claus is a poor reflection of the original St. Nicholas, who is believed to have been a fourth-century bishop in Myra, in present-day Turkey. He had a reputation for generosity and kindness, which gave rise to legends of miracles that he performed for the poor and unhappy.

"St. Nicholas was a man who helped the poor, saved people who were unjustly condemned, freed prisoners," Schade said. "You could say he was a forerunner of Amnesty International. Santa is much less than that -- just about giving gifts."

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