Santa beware! Activists in Germany are waging an international campaign to do away with old Father Christmas and say they are gaining ground thanks to the global economic meltdown.
The "Santa-Free Zone" movement says it is gathering steam this year against what it calls the hollow commercialization of Christmas.
Launched by a German Catholic priest in 2002, the campaign aims to knock Santa off his pedestal and replace what they see as a cheap, American import with the real thing: Saint Nicholas.
"The movement is intended to raise awareness that the consumption-oriented Santa launched by the Christmas gift industry has little to do with the holy bishop Saint Nicholas," said Christoph Schommer of the Catholic aid group Bonifatiuswerk, which is rallying the Santa opposition.
Saint Nicholas, an actual historical figure, was in the fourth century Bishop of Myra in today's Turkey whose legendary modesty and generosity led him to give gifts in secret.
As the story goes, his greatest miracle was saving three girls whose impoverished father wanted to sell them into prostitution. Nicholas, who had inherited a fortune from his father, left three lumps of gold over three nights in their room while they were sleeping.
But Saint Nicholas has long been upstaged during the holiday season by the ho-ho-ho-ing Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, and activists would like the saint to reclaim the Yuletide throne.
Santa's red fur-lined suit, chubby mid-section and white beard are all thought to be inventions of ad-men at Coca-Cola, which came up with the figure for a campaign in the 1930s.
Opponents say Santa has cheapened Christmas by reducing a celebration of Christian values to a decadent and deeply dissatisfying display of greed.
"We of course are doing the whole thing with a twinkle in our eyes - we are not trying to take away Santa from anyone but we want to make clear who the original Father Christmas is," Schommer said.
"Nicholas promoted values such as solidarity, loving thy neighbor, sharing what you have, and the bushy-bearded Santa does just the opposite - he's a pack horse of consumer society, nothing more."
The Santa-Free Zone people have in six years passed out 100,000 stickers emblazoned with a jolly Kris Kringle in a circle crossed through with a slash, like a no-parking sign, on high streets and at Germany's ubiquitous outdoor Christmas markets.
The group launched a new website in time for the season that lays out the stark differences between Santa and the real Saint Nick, and is drawing 12,000 registers per month from around the world.
The movement is rivaling traditional Santa candies with chocolate figurines wrapped in foil bearing the image of Nicholas the bishop.
Schommer said the downturn in the global economy had already muted the shop-till-you-drop mood of Christmas, and reported rampant interest in the Santa-Free Zone stickers and Nicholas chocolates in Germany, Europe and North America. "Investing in stocks can make your money disappear in a flash but the values that Saint Nicholas stood for - that giving to others makes you richer and not poorer - is something that endures," he said.
(China Daily 12/25/2008 page10)