He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.His eyes–how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.He had a broad face and a little round belly,that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
CLEMENT CLARKE MOORE, Twas the Night Before Christmas
Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and simply “Santa“, is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve, December 24. The modern figure was derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, which, in turn, was part of its basis in hagiographical tales concerning the historical figure of Christian bishop and gift giver Saint Nicholas. A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek Orthodox and Byzantine Christian folklore to Saint Basil of Caesarea. Basil’s feast day on January 1 is considered the time of exchanging gifts in Greece.
Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, joyous, white-bearded man – sometimes with spectacles – wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots (images of him rarely have a beard with no moustache). This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children’s books and films.
According to a tradition which can be traced to the 1820s, Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, with a large number of magical elves, and nine (originally eight) flying reindeer. Since the 20th century, in an idea popularized by the 1934 song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, Santa Claus has been believed to make a list of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior (“naughty” or “nice”) and to deliver presents, including toys, and candy to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and sometimes coal to the naughty children, on the single night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of the elves who make the toys in the workshop and the reindeer who pull his sleigh.
This is the Iconic image of Santa Claus that we all know and love. Every since I was a child, the woven story of Santa Claus, the North Pole, his sleigh and reindeer, the magic of it all, it intrigued me and it was no loss of mine to believe in that magic. It made the season magical and mysterious. I am an admitted Christian, but the story of Santa Claus never affected my view of the birth of the Christ child, nor did it warp my beliefs into an anti-Christian view. I was wholly capable of believing in my savior and his birth, the story, nay the belief, that the Son of God was born in a manger. I remember in the claymation story, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and how he was called Nick in it. I later learned that he was based on Saint Nicholas, a man of God. So it was no great leap for me to have Santa Claus and Christ in one season, connected by a faith. The real story of Santa is far bigger than you could imagine though. He is based on the real Saint Nicholas, who I made a post about earlier on the blog.
Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In continental Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. In 1087, the Italian city of Bari, wanting to enter the profitable pilgrimage industry of the times, mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Christian Saint and procure his remains. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was conquered by Italian sailors and the spoils, including his relics, taken to Bari where they are kept to this day. A basilica was constructed the same year to store the loot and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout, thus justifying the economic cost of the expedition. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers. He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.
So the beginnings were based on a real religious figure, which is why, as a child I felt no loss of faith when I chose to believe that Santa Claus could have been real. As far as I knew, God took Saint Nicholas and chose him to make the world a better place.
Numerous parallels have been drawn between Santa Claus and the figure of Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic peoples prior to their Christianization. Since many of these elements are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Santa Claus.
Odin was sometimes recorded, at the native Germanic holiday of Yule, which was celebrated at the same time of year as Christmas now is, as leading a great hunting party through the sky. Two books from Iceland, the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, describe Odin as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus’s reindeer. Further, Odin was referred to by many names in Skaldic poetry, some of which describe his appearance or functions. These include Síðgrani,Síðskeggr,Langbarðr, (all meaning “long beard”) and Jólnir (“Yule figure”).
According to some traditions, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat.Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy. This practice still survives in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of France and became associated with Saint Nicholas since Christianization. In other countries it has been replaced by the hanging of stockings at the chimney in homes.
Originating from pre-Christian Alpine traditions and influenced by later Christianization, the Krampus is represented as a Companion of Saint Nicholas. Traditionally, some young men dress up as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December and particularly on the evening of December 5 and roam the streets frightening children (and adults) with rusty chains and bells.
The pagan origins/influences of Santa Claus must also be noted. Much like the rest of the world, the Church adopted native beliefs and influences. This would lead to our modern view of Santa Claus.
The figure of Father Christmas provides an important link to what we see as Santa Claus today. Though we generally associate Santa in red, Father Christmas instead wears green.
Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain, and pictures of him survive from that era, portraying him as a jolly well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and was reflected as the “Ghost of Christmas Present”, in Charles Dickens’s festive classic A Christmas Carol, a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.
Father Christmas also appears briefly in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His presence in Narnia is representative of the White Witch’s ailing powers as it often reiterated throughout the novel that she has made it “always winter in Narnia but never Christmas”. He makes gifts of armament and tools to the Pevensies in preparation for their intended coup of the White Witch.
So, we are getting closer to what our modern Santa looks like, but we aren’t quite there just yet.
Pre-modern representations of the gift-giver from church history and folklore, notably St Nicholas and Sinterklaas, merged with the British character Father Christmas to create the character known to Britons and Americans as Santa Claus.
In the British colonies of North America and later the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. For example, in Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into “Santa Claus” (a name first used in the American press in 1773) but lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. Irving’s book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention.
The story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation. His Christmas image in the Harper’s issue dated December 29, 1866 was a collage of engravings titled Santa Claus and His Works, which included the caption “Santa Claussville, N.P.”A color collection of Nast’s pictures, published in 1869, had a poem also titled “Santa Claus and His Works” by George P. Webster, who wrote that Santa Claus’s home was “near the North Pole, in the ice and snow”. The tale had become well known by the 1870s. A boy from Colorado writing to the children’s magazine The Nursery in late 1874 said, “If we did not live so very far from the North Pole, I should ask Santa Claus to bring me a donkey.”
The idea of a wife for Santa Claus may have been the creation of American authors, beginning in the mid-1800s. In 1889, the poet Katherine Lee Bates popularized Mrs. Claus in the poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride”.
“Is There a Santa Claus?” was the title of an editorial appearing in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, has become an indelible part of popular Christmas lore in the United States and Canada.
Now we begin to see Claus emerging as the image we know today, but back in the 1930’s, Coca-Cola would cement this image in the minds of people forever.
Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was invented by The Coca-Cola Company or that Santa wears red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand. Historically, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising—White Rock Beverages had already used a red and white Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923. Earlier still, Santa Claus had appeared dressed in red and white and essentially in his current form on several covers of Puck magazine in the first few years of the twentieth century.
Someone once tried to tell me Santa Claus was invented by Coca-Cola and I quickly found myself wondering if it was indeed true. Had the man been merely an invention to sell a product? Before the time of the internet, disproving such rumors wee harder than one could imagine. Luckily for me, most of what I knew was from the old fashioned way of having actually read about it. I ws never able to dispel those rumors though until after the internet was in full swing and someone else mentioned it in passing. i was more than willing to look it up and find whether or not it was truly a fact, or another tall tale. I spent weeks looking up stuff on Santa Claus, and Saint Nicholas and was fascinated by the information. I love history and leaning all I can on subjects, and this was a subject that held special meaning for me.
Now, as part of the Santa Claus Mythos (commonly any information that is used to expand the fictional history of a person, place, or idea) we see him with his Sleigh and Reindeer and generally the myth goes that he transports the presents down the Chimney with himself and places them under the Christmas Tree.
The tradition of Santa Claus entering dwellings through the chimney is shared by many European seasonal gift-givers. In pre-Christian Norse tradition, Odin would often enter through chimneys and fireholes on the solstice. In the Italian Befana tradition, the gift-giving witch is perpetually covered with soot from her trips down the chimneys of children’s homes. In the tale of Saint Nicholas, the saint tossed coins through a window, and, in a later version of the tale, down a chimney when he finds the window locked. In Dutch artist Jan Steen’s painting, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, adults and toddlers are glancing up a chimney with amazement on their faces while other children play with their toys. The hearth was held sacred in primitive belief as a source of beneficence, and popular belief had elves and fairies bringing gifts to the house through this portal. Santa’s entrance into homes on Christmas Eve via the chimney was made part of American tradition through Moore’s A Visit from Saint Nicholas where the author described him as an elf.
So now it seems all too clear on how Santa Claus became the Man, the Myth and the Legend we use every year during the Holidays. Though there is something else that comes with Santa Claus. The Rituals of Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve rituals
In the United States and Canada, children traditionally leave Santa a glass of milk and a plate of cookies; in Britain and Australia, he is sometimes given sherry, or beer and mince pies instead. In Sweden and Norway, children leave rice porridge. In Ireland it is popular to give him Guinness or milk, along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
In Hungary, St. Nicolaus (Mikulás) comes on the night of December 5 and the children get their gifts the next morning. They get sweets in a bag if they were good, and a golden colored birch switch if not. On Christmas Eve “Little Jesus” comes and gives gifts for everyone.
In Slovenia, Saint Nicholas (Miklavž) also brings small gifts for good children on the eve of December 6. Božiček (Christmas Man) brings gifts on the eve of December 25, and Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Frost) brings gifts in the evening of December 31 to be opened on New Years Day.
British, Australian, Irish, Canadian and American children also leave a carrot for Santa’s reindeer, and were traditionally told that if they are not good all year round, that they will receive a lump of coal in their stockings, although this practice is now considered archaic. Children following the Dutch custom for sinterklaas will “put out their shoe”—that is, leave hay and a carrot for his horse in a shoe before going to bed—sometimes weeks before the sinterklaas avond. The next morning they will find the hay and carrot replaced by a gift; often, this is a marzipan figurine. Naughty children were once told that they would be left a roe (a bundle of sticks) instead of sweets, but this practice has been discontinued.
Other Christmas Eve Santa Claus rituals in the United States include reading Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas or other tale about Santa Claus, watching a Santa or Christmas-related animated program on television (such as the aforementioned Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town and similar specials, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, among many others), and the singing of Santa Claus songs such as “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, “Here Comes Santa Claus”, and “Up on the Housetop”. Last minute rituals for children before going to bed include aligning stockings at the mantelpiece or other place where Santa cannot fail to see them, peeking up the chimney (in homes with a fireplace), glancing out a window and scanning the heavens for Santa’s sleigh, and (in homes without a fireplace) unlocking an exterior door so Santa can easily enter the house. Tags on gifts for children are sometimes signed by their parents “From Santa Claus” before the gifts are laid beneath the tree.
Over the years there have been a number of websites created by various organizations that have purported to track Santa Claus. Some, such as NORAD Tracks Santa, the Airservices Australia Tracks Santa Project, the Santa Update Project, and the MSNBC and Bing Maps Platform Tracks Santa Project have endured. Others, such as the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s Tracks Santa Project,the Santa Retro Radar – Lehigh Valley Project, and the NASA Tracks Santa Project, have fallen by the wayside.
Letter writing to Santa
Many postal services allow children to send letters to Santa Claus. These letters may be answered by postal workers and/or outside volunteers. Writing letters to Santa Claus has the educational benefits of promoting literacy, computer literacy, and e-mail literacy. A letter to Santa is often a child’s first experience of correspondence. Written and sent with the help of a parent or teacher, children learn about the structure of a letter, salutations, and the use of an address and postcode.
I can remember as a child, Christmas Eve would come and I would be so excited for the next morning that I could barely sleep. My mother and Father were very good at hiding the presents when I was a kid. And even better at being quiet as to move them from outside into the house on Christmas Eve. As I got older, I could hear them go in and out and I knew that Santa wasn’t real, but the story of a man who made millions of children happy still warmed my heart, and I always, in the back of my mind, hoped that maybe Jolly Ole Saint Nick was out there, delivering gifts to those who needed them the most.
There is a lot more information out there on Santa Claus, even on the Santa Claus Wikipedia page. I’ve hit the parts that were most important to my blog post, but I encourage anyone who is curious to look for more information. You can never learn too much.
Alas! How dreary would be the world if there was no Santa Claus!… There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.
FRANCIS P. CHURCH, New York Sun, Sep. 21, 1897
And for those who truly love the magic of Santa Claus.