Snacks for Santa sparse in Europe
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 24, 2008
By Robert Barr
LONDON ó Santa’s rounds in Europe can be hungry work.
The jolly old elf can count on mince pies and sherry in Britain, but in Denmark the food is left out for gnomes, not for Julmanden (Santa). In desperation in Belgium, St. Nick could always grab one of the carrots left out for his horse.
In short, the American tradition of leaving a snack for Santa ó and his faithful helper, Dad ó holds no sway in much of Europe. Factor in those countries where gifts are said to be delivered by St. Nicholas, the Baby Jesus or the Three Wise Men, and it gets more confusing.
Several days before Christmas Eve, Danish children leave a bowl of “risengroed” ó rice porridge ó for the “nisse,” the gnomes or elves who are least 400 years old and live in attics. Those who don’t offer the porridge risk having bad luck.
In times past, a sweet, low-alcohol beer called “hvidtoel” would be left next to the porridge.
The gnomes play an even bigger role in Sweden and Norway, where in addition to bestowing good or bad luck, and demanding bowls of rice porridge, they also bring gifts.
Finland is regarded as Santa’s home in some countries. But if that’s the case, he doesn’t eat well at home. There is no tradition in Finland of leaving snacks for Santa because he comes while children are still awake. The Finnish Santa Claus ó Joulupukki ó knocks on the door and demands to know if there are any well-behaved kids in residence, and he may be accompanied by several Christmas elves.
Customs of offering food to spirits, deities or ancestors are rooted far back in time, and persist to this day in celebrations such as Mexico’s Day of Dead, when families build altars and leave food, drink and flowers on graves.
“There are plenty of medieval references to popular customs of leaving out food and drink on certain winter nights for mythical nocturnal figures who visit people’s homes and bestow gifts of good fortune or prosperity for the coming year on the homes where the visitors are welcomed,” said Caroline Oates, librarian of The Folklore Society in London.
“The custom was condemned by various authors, including Guillaume d’Auvergne in the early 13th century, who considered that leaving the table set for Domina Abundia (Lady Abundance) was an open invitation to demons to enter the house.”
In Belgium and the Netherlands, St. Nicholas arrives by horse from Spain on Dec. 5 or Dec. 6, accompanied by his sidekick Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Kids leave a snack only for the horse; Black Pete carries his own supply of marble-sized spiced cookies called pepernoten, which he distributes freely.
Sinterklaes, as he is called in the Netherlands, was the figure who inspired Washington Irving’s stories of Dutch times in New York, stories which deeply influenced the American celebration of Christmas. And the traditions that developed in the United States have spread to other countries, but not all.
Spanish children wait until Jan.6 ó the Feast of the Epiphany ó for the Three Wise Men to deliver the gifts, but don’t leave any food for them.
In Italy many children expect their gifts from the Baby Jesus, but some place their hopes in a Santa figure, Babbo Natale. Kids hoping for loot from Babbo Natale may leave milk, cookies or a slice of panettone.
Croatians have no tradition of leaving snacks for Santa ó once called Djed Mraz (Grandpa Frost), but later changed to Djed Bozicnjak (Christmas Grandpa) when Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia. Lately, some people put out biscuits and a glass of milk, an idea apparently copied from the United States.
British children traditionally offer a mince pie to Santa, plus sherry, brandy, whisky or something else bracing.
Mince pies have a long association with Christmas, going back at least to King Henry VIII, who liked a big Christmas pie filled with mincemeat (it was a meat-based dish then; now it’s almost always spiced fruit).
In the 17th century, mince pies were banned as Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans cracked down on Christmas revelry. The writer John Selden satirized the Puritans by saying they regarded the pies as “idolatrie in crust.”
Strangely, no one has thought of putting out pickles. One of the miracles attributed to St. Nicholas of Myra ó the original St. Nick, Sinterklaas or Santa Claus ó was raising from the dead three clerks who had been cut up and pickled.
Bulgarians celebrate St. Nicholas Day (Nikulden) on Dec. 6 with feasting based on another legend. Carp is the dish du jour, recalling the story of Nicholas saving a ship from sinking by stuffing a live carp into the hole.