The Santa Claus figure, who brings children gifts each Christmas in many Western cultures, goes by many names: Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Grandfather Frost, to name a few. But one name, Kris Kringle, doesn’t originally refer to any Santa at all.
The Oxford English Dictionary first attests Kris Kringle in James Watson’s 1830s Annals of Philadelphia: “Every father in his turn remembers the excitements of his youth in Belsh-nichel and Christ-kinkle nights.”
In Pennsylvania Dutch communities, Belsh-nichel, literally either “fur Nicholas” or “flog Nicholas,” is a mysterious, and terrifying, Christmas gift-giver who wears fur and carries a switch. For good children, Belsh-nichel brings candies. For naughty youngsters, he brings his switch down onto their backs.
Christ-kinkle, source of Kris Kringle, is also a Santa Claus character for the Pennsylvania Dutch. But originally, Kris Kringle is a name for that other central figure, and namesake, of Christmas: the Christ Child.
Kris is from the German for Christ, and Christ is from the Greek for “to rub” or “smear” oil, which anointed the likes of prophets, priests, kings – and Jesus the Christ, or Jesus the Anointed One. Kringle, if we reverse some sound changes and strip away a diminutive suffix in the Pennsylvania German language, goes back to kind, which means “child” in German. The English kind – as in humankind, kind of, or “nice” – is related. Kind shares a deeper root with kin and oh-so-many other words, from a Proto-Germanic root meaning “family,” in turn from the prolific Proto-Indo-European root *gen-, “to produce.”
In a number of European and Latin American cultures, the annual Christmas gift-giver isn’t Santa Claus but the Christ Child himself. Indeed, he goes by Christkind in a number of Germanic-language cultures, including in southwestern Germany, where many of the Pennsylvania Dutch hail from. (Nor should we forget Santa Claus ultimately traces back to the Dutch Sinter Niklaas, “Saint Nicholas,” a fourth-century Greek bishop whom Christians came to honor as the patron saint of children.)
For the Pennsylvania Dutch – and then the broader, Christian, English-speaking, North American culture – time merged a tradition of Santa Claus with the language of Baby Jesus: Kris Kringle. And so, if you’re one who is concerned that commercialism has made us blind to the “true meaning of Christmas,” Kris Kringle may offer a little etymological reminder.