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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif N816

Santa Claus as bringer of Christmas gifts. *Hoffman-Krayer Zs. f. Vksk. XXV 121 nn. 7 – 9.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

4. Legends and traditions

D. Marvelous Powers and Occurrences

3. Marvelous Occurrences

If we were examining here the interesting field of saints' legends as they appear in medieval writings or the literary tale collections of the Orient and the Near East, we should find them filled with all sorts of physical marvels, many of them magic, of course, but many of them simply miraculous and presumably due to divine intervention. Though they do not appear with such luxuriance in actual folklore, the abundant popular legends attached to this place or that show how deep-seated is the interest in such manifestations.

These often appear as incidental motifs in the background of folktales, [409] but sometimes they constitute the central interest in the narrative. Such, for example, are a considerable series of legends about churches which, for one reason or another, have sunk into the earth (F941.2). Sometimes the congregation is still heard singing from underground, or from beneath the sea which has swallowed them up. A similar tradition concerns a whole city which suddenly sinks into the ocean and which can still be seen at favorable moments beneath the waves (F944).

The reversal of the order of nature in connection with flowers and plants is a favorite theme of those interested in marvels. Biblical story, saints' legends, and wonder tales all tell of the dry rod which bursts forth into blossom (F971.1; see Type 756), and there is a well-known folktale of the rose which grows from a table or from a stone (Type 755). Even better recognized in folk tradition are the flowers or fruits which bloom or ripen in midwinter. [410] As an independent legend perhaps the best known is that of the tree which bears apples only at Christmas time. It blossoms at midnight and is full of apples by the morning (F971.5.2). This belongs to the large series of Christmas legends, partly of ecclesiastical and partly of popular origin, but now as real as any other folk traditions. Another such Christmas legend which deserves mention here is the miraculous apparition of presents on Christmas morning through the agency of Santa Claus (N816). Countries vary, of course, in the name of the benefactor, but the general legend is widespread.

Most of the marvels here discussed have lost their hold on the faith of men who have been influenced by the rise of the rationalistic spirit during recent centuries. But it is well to remember that to a large part of the world even today they are no more inexplicable than the voice which comes over the [p. 262] radio, or the airplane which goes from continent to continent with more than seven league boots. And the most sophisticated of us have probably slipped out of bed on Christmas night with the hope that we might catch Santa Claus in the very act of coming down the chimney.

[409] For an extensive listing of such incidents, see F900 to F1099.

[410] The heroine is sent after strawberries in winter: Type 403B, and occasionally in other tales. A garden is constructed which bears in the cold weather (D1664).


403B, 755, 756


D1664, F900-F1099, F941.2, F944, F971.1, F971.5.2, N816