In the sixteenth century the custom of the
German Christchild as gift bringer became widely adopted in Europe. It
started in Alsace, a border province, and moved into France.
In Alsace the gift bringer was called le
petit Jesus and was depicted in various forms, induding a small boy child
in a garland trimmed cart drawn by a lamb. The Cart was laden with gifts
to be given to good children. Eventually the figure of the Christchild was
replaced by child angels.
Probably one practice responsible for the
change to child angels was a result of the enactment of a medieval mystery
play of the Nativity done at the Rouen Cathedral as far back as the
twelfth century. The parts were sung as a dialogue between the priests and
a choir of young boys. A special choir boy dressed as an angel was chosen
to sing the solo responses from the bakony.
Except for the choir angels, young
children did not attend the midnight mass. They went to bed early after
placing their shoes by the fireside in anticipation of gifts from le petit
Jesus. Off to bed they went to dream of the miracle of Christmas.
When most of Europe was adopting the
American Santa Claus as their Christmas gift giver, the French
illustrators began to elaborate on the angel theme. In advertisements and
story books, it was a common sight to see the French Angel putting
presents down the chimney rather than accept the American Santa.
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