The chimney

In the influential poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” which taught North America much of what it was to learn about Santa Claus, the author notes that “down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.” That is how generations of Canadian and American children expected the gift-bringer to arrive, so much so that many fathers have been moved to clomp around on the roof or in the attic to imitate the noise of reindeer standing by the chimney.  The chimney is also the mode of entrance for a number of other of the world’s Christmas gift-bringers. In Italy Befana comes down the chimney (and in true chimney-sweep fashion carries a broom with her); in the same way Father Christmas enters homes in England and Père Noël or Le pétit Jésus in France. In Holland the gift-bringer’s helper Black Pete goes down the chimney to keep St Nicholas from getting his clothes dirty. The chimney also serves to carry messages to the gift-bringer: in England children write letters to Father Christmas and burn them in the fireplace sending their smoky wishes via the chimney; in Scotland children “cry up the lum” — they shout their wishes up the chimney on Christmas Eve.

But the chimney is not just a way in for the gift-bringer. To psychiatrists it represents the birth canal and it also admits unpleasant creatures. Norwegians feared that witches would come down the chimney and, in order to prevent this, would burn dry spruce which emits sparks, or put salt in the fire.  In Greece  the “skarkatzalos” log is burned over the Twelve Days of Christmas to keep out the Kallikantzaroi who slip down the chimney — in Scotland they use a similar trick to keep the elves out.

There are other ways in for gift-bringers besides the chimney. In Brazil, where the tropic heat renders chimneys few and far between, Papai Noel comes through the front door. The direct method is also used in Sweden (where gifts are often thrown in through the door), Finland and Australia. In Hungary the Baby Jesus brings presents through the window and, like the Befana, rings a little bell when the deed is done. Germany’s Weihnachtsmann has been known to use both the window and the chimney, while Chile’s Viejo Pascuero prefers the window.

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