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.
Armed with child-friendly stickers, web-savvy promoters and chocolate figurines, the "Santa-Free Zone" movement says it is gathering steam this year against what it calls the hollow commercialisation of Christmas.
AdvertisementLaunched 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 of the fact that the consumption-oriented Santa launched by the Christmas gift industry has very 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.
Catholics and Orthodox Christians in much of the world still celebrate Saint Nicholas Day, usually on December 6, as a festival for children, who receive chocolates in their shoes when they leave them out overnight.
But Saint Nicholas has long been upstaged during the holiday season by the ho-ho-ho-ing Santa Claus, or Father Christmas in Britain and Canada, and activists would like the saint to reclaim the Yuletide throne.
Santa's red fur-lined suit, chubby mid-section and fluffy white beard are all thought to be inventions of ad-men at Coca-Cola, which came up with the grandfatherly 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.
But the Saint Nicholas camp also refuses to be dismissed as a bunch of Bah-Humbug curmudgeons.
"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 neighbour, sharing what you have and the bushy-bearded Santa does just the opposite he's a pack horse of consumer society, nothing more."
Protestants have also joined in promoting Nicholas over Santa Claus as a more fitting symbol of Christmas.
The Lutheran Church put out a pro-Nicholas manifesto this month titled "How a Holy Legend Turned Into an Advertising Gag".
"'Jack Frost' from Russia and the 'Weihnachtsmann,' 'Father Christmas' and 'Pere Noel' were superimposed on the image of the bishop from Asia Minor by clever advertising strategists," it said.
"That is how the charitable miracle-maker who helped young people in need degenerated into the giver of presents big and small."
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 this year in time for the season that lays out the stark differences between Santa and the real Saint Nick, and is drawing 12,000 unique registers per month from around the world.
And the movement is rivalling traditional Santa candies with chocolate figurines wrapped in foil with the image of Nicholas the bishop dressed in a mitre and a flowing robe, clutching a staff and Bible.
Schommer said the downturn in the global economy had already muted the shop-till-you-drop mood that usually reigns at Christmas, and reported rampant interest in the Santi-Free Zone stickers and Nicholas chocolates in Germany, the rest of Europe and North America.
"There are several interesting parallels with the financial crisis, which also shows at the end of the day that material wealth is ephemeral," he said.
"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."
But Santa says he's not on the ropes yet.
"You can't have Christmas without Santa!" Peter Georgi, 66, told AFP on a break from playing Father Christmas at Berlin's top department store KaDeWe.
The white-bearded Georgi with a mischievous smile said he had learned in his eight years on the job that even adults seemed to feel a little magic in his presence.
"Santa is not here trying to pull money out of people's pockets. Children, adults and even old people come especially to see me every year. Santa will always be a part of the joy of the holidays."