History and tradition
The tradition of giving anonymous gifts at Christmas has its roots in Scandinavia, where Secret Santa is known as “Julklapp.” This word is a compound of “Jul” (which means ‘Christmas’) and “Klapp”, which means “knocking.” In Scandinavian countries, tradition dictates that you knock loudly on the door, open the door and throw the gift into the room or otherwise leave it behind without being seen. This custom stems from the idea of Knecht Ruprecht (or “Servant Rupert”) who wanders from house to house, giving out gifts, serving his master, St Nicholas (aka Santa Claus). In German, the word for Secret Santa is “wichteln,” which also has Nordic roots. Wichtel are a kind of pixie: tiny domestic spirits who, according to the Scandinavian sagas, stand side-by-side with the inhabitants of the house, doing good and helping out. English-language folklore features brownies as an equivalent; in German they are referred to as Heinzelmännchen but the term Wichtel can also be found in many German sagas and romances. Heinzelmännchen are particularly prevalent in the folklore of the Cologne region: August Kopisch introduced them to Cologne, transferring the Saga of the Seven Hills from the rural Rhineland to Cologne. His ballad remains well known today and has been published in many different versions as a children’s book. The Heinzelmännchen or brownies that he describes help humans with everyday tasks, repair things and make themselves useful around the home.
At Christmas, time is at a premium and therefore the Christmas Wichtel have the important task of supporting Santa Clause in delivering gifts. The Scandinavian Julklapp has another charming custom associated with it: instead of writing a name on the gift, a short and funny message is included (even better if it rhymes). On the basis of what is written, the guests at the Secret Santa event can figure out which gift is meant for whom, usually accompanied by lots of laughter.
Traditionally, Julklapp and Julfrokost go together. Julfrokost can literally be translated as a Christmas lunch. However, as festivities usually take place in the run-up to Christmas, these events are also referred to as Julfrokost. The Julfrokost begins between 12 noon and 2 p.m. and can extend over the entire day. Once all the guests have eaten their fill from the warm and cold buffet with typical regional dishes, gifts are exchanged, although the tradition of knocking and then throwing the gifts into the middle of the room is no longer so widely practiced.