The stern-looking St. Nicholas is out. The smiling Santa is in.
This personnel move has occurred at Kirchmayr Chocolatiers in Timonium. Some of us see this as a change with larger implications, a shift of seasonal mood away from accountability (St. Nicholas records bad behavior in a book) and toward affability (Santa is perpetually jolly).
For the past 20 years or so, the faces of the chocolate figures that Albert Kirchmayr and his crew crafted in their Baltimore area shop had a glower. They were modeled after St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop born in what is now Turkey. With an imposing beard and a no-nonsense expression, he looked like a scorekeeper for morals.
Not only is the dour visage historically correct, his dark look I would argue is a more accurate representation of how most of us feel around the holidays. It is not all sweetness and light, as any venture to a mall parking lot proves.
Yet the other day, after I fought through angry traffic and arrived at Kirchmayr's, I was shocked to be greeted by grins. There, wrapped in cellophane, were scores of milk and dark chocolate Santas. And instead of glaring, they were beaming.
Kirchmayr told me that this shift to good-feeling was global in scope. The molds that make the smiling Santas come from the same Germany company that produced molds that yielded the less-forgiving look of old St. Nicholas.
The kinder, gentler Santa Claus began appearing last year, he said. These Santas, he explained "are more friendly to the American market."
Locally, sales of the "chubby and smiling" Santas have been keeping pace with those in previous years for the leaner, meaner models, he said.. Each holiday season he sells about 2,500 dark chocolate and milk chocolate Santas or St. Nick's, ranging from 6 inches to 26 inches tall and from $6 to $150.
But Kirchmayr, 54, who grew up in a small village south of Munich, spoke fondly of the days when visits from St. Nicholas were not necessarily benign, and presents were not certain.
"As boys, we were always cocky," Kirchmayr said, until someone dressed as St. Nicholas visited their homes early in December. Then it was a day of reckoning, he said, with the St. Nicholas character, accompanied by a scary-looking assistant, interrogating the children on their behavior before dispensing treats. The assistant, clad in black and known by several names, including Knecht Ruprecht, carried a cloth sack that bad-behaving children could be put in and carried away.
"We always carried a pocket knife, so if we got put in the bag, we could cut our way out," he reported. Kirchmayr was never "bagged," but he did recall some instances when St. Nicholas negotiated with Knecht Ruprecht, plea-bargaining, if you will, to keep out of the man's clutches.
When I looked into how St. Nicholas has been depicted in various countries, I found that he often looked "hard." He was a taskmaster, quizzing kids about their behavior and their church-going and threatening to leave obstreperous kids sticks, lumps of coal or potatoes. But in the end, he usually came through with the good stuff.
His assistants, however, could be quite nasty. In Austria, one known as Krampus shows up in St. Nicholas Day parades, sometimes clad in fur or chains, and threatening to switch errant children. Good St. Nick, however, keeps the bad guy at bay. In the Netherlands Antilles, St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, sails into the harbor from Spain. His helpers, known as Zwarte Piet, could pop ill-mannered children into a large sack and carry them back to Spain. Nothing like the threat of kidnapping to warm a holiday heart.
Joseph Walsh, a professor of history and classics at Baltimore's Loyola University and author of "Were They Wise Men or Kings? The Book of Christmas Questions," gave me some scholarly perspective.
In general, he said, the stories about these characters reflect society's changing attitude toward child-rearing.
In the Middle Ages, tales describe St. Nicholas as a defender of children. He saves three young girls from living on the streets, by surreptitiously tossing three bags of gold into their father's home. Later, he miraculously saves three boys, bringing them back to life after they have been chopped up by an innkeeper, Walsh said.
When the prevailing view is that children are innately bad and need to be disciplined, stories mention the sticks or rods that could be used to bring intractable children into line, Walsh said. But, he said, "as the 19th century went on, a rosier view of children took hold, and an emerging middle class focused more on family life and making children happy." By then, "the grumpy old Santa does not have a chance."