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The Odd History of Santa Claus

December 25, 2010

(All who find this article please send it to your friends and family! Merry Christmas!)

Santa Claus is a figure most are famiilar with in the Western World. The image of a fat, bearded jolly-man can be found every Christmastide. However, many do not know where he came from, and fewer know that he has more than one origin.

This is a history of the roots of Santa Claus as we know him today. (Note: Any corrections/additions would be much appreciated).

His story begins as St. Nocholas/Nikolas of Myra. He was born to a wealthy Greek Chrisitan couple in what is now Turkey, his parents being Epiphanus and Johanna (or according to the Orthodox Church Theophanes and Nonna). He was aaid to of been a religious youth, and to have observed the fasts of Wednesday and Friday. When his parents died from a plague, he went to live with his uncle Nicholas (same name), who was bishop of Patara, where he was made a priest by his uncle.

He was said to have done many miracles, including resurrecting several murder victims and manipulating a load of wheat to save his people from a famine. However, his most famous feat (and the inspiration for the Santa story) was when he heard of a poor man who had three daughters for whom he could not pay the wedding dowry for. Fearing that they may become prostitutes, the father despaired. However, Nicholas, wanting to help but also being very discreet, filled three purses with gold and threw them through the window at night. Also, he was known for going around putting gold coins into shoes people left out for him to put stuff in. His feast day is December 6th (more on this later).

However, according to some theories, Santa has deeper roots in old Germanic paganism, primarily traditions regarding the god Odin.


These theories derive from several traditions associated with Odin, those being that he sometimes galloped across rooftops on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir (kids would put food in their shoes and leave them near the chimney for Sleipnir to munch on the snacks), his long, white beard, and that he led the Wild Hunt during Yule. Though these are striking similarities, and may of provided fuel for several Christmas traditions, it is much more likely that this is a case of people taking similar attitudes to similar situations, at least for those traditions previously cited (a theory I like to call the “Humans are Uncreative” theory, which I’ll expand upon in a future post).

Things remained rather consistent until the Protestant Revolution, where Catholic traditions came under attack, including those regarding Saint Nicholas. However, the modern traditions of Santa Claus began to emerge in various parts of Europe from the 17th-18th centuries, some very close to the modern Santa, some very different.

In Central Germany, Saint Nicholas was forced to retire due to the Protestant Reformation. However, to continue the tradition of gift-giving people create Das Christkind, the Christ-Child, who to this day is the traditional gift-bearer on Christmas (in addition to the resurfaced St. Nicholas and imported Santa Claus). Christkindel, a diminutive for Das Chirstkind, morphed into Chris Kringle, another name for Santa.

Another central European tradition in the Krampus, a vicious monster that ran around scaring naughty children whilst St. Nicholas/Christkind simultaneously rewarded good children. It was traditional for people to dress in the garb of the Krampus in the first weeks of December and run around frightening people, a tradition very similar but unrelated to a Japanese New Year Tradition (which will be expanded upon in my New Year’s post).

In England, the figure of Father Christmas developed, more of a personification of the Holiday spirit than any saint or deity in particular. He is a large, jolly man dressed in a green robe who spreads Christmas cheer to all.

In Scandanavia, the tradition of the Yule Goat started from before the Protestant Reformation and continued on until 1840s. The tradition may go as far back as the worship of the god Thor, who rode through the sky in his chariot drawn by two goats. In Sweden and Norway it was a figure that made sure Christmas preparations were done correctly, whilst in Finland it was considered an ugly creature that terrified people and demanded presents (a subtle reaction to Swedish occupation?).The Yule Goat came in through the front door and gave presents to kids directly. This was usually acted out by a family member dressing like a goat and doing the gift-giving.

However, starting around the 19th century it began universally to bring presents during Christmas. The rise of Tomte the Elf (and Santa Claus later) replaced the Christmas Goat, but the tradition still lives on through holiday decorations.

A later Scandinavian gift-bearer was the Tomte/Nisse/Tonttu, a elf-like being said to look after farmer’s homes. Usually a manifestation of an ancestor, after Christianization they were seen as devils. However, the tradition of giving porridge for the Tomte during Christmas survived, being a remainder of ancestor-worship. Later he became the gift-bearer during Christmastime, delivering presents directly to the children (as the Yule Goat before it).

However, the Santa of Today has his most direct origins in the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas.

Literally Saint Nicholas, he is celebrated on December 5th (the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day). In the 1800s his legend became fully fleshed out. He came from Spain via Steamboat, and, being assisted by small, black men in green suits called Zwarte Pieten (Père Fouettard in Belgium), went about the business of rewarding good children with sweets and small toys, whilst simultaneously placing naughty children in a sack and taking them back to Spain to be punished.

A “Black Peter”

In recent years he has gained a steed named Amerigo (Slechtweervandaag in Flanders) and has started to gain attributes similar to those of the American Santa Claus, to the dismay of most Dutchmen.

Santa Claus as we know him today began to take shape in the 1800s, combining features of the various St. Nick figures throughout Europe. He started to gain his modern appearance in Washington Irving’s A History of New York , in which he depicted Santa Claus as a thick-bellied pipe-bearing Dutch Sailor in a Green Winter Coat. In the 1830s many modern features of Santa formed, especially in the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, better known nowadays as The Night before Christmas, which was the first to describe the reindeer-sleigh, the sack of presents, and the act of entering through a chimney, the chimney tradition probably having roots in both tales of St. Nicholas throwing coins down the chimney and fairies and elves coming trorugh the chimney bearing gifts. Later, Thomas Nast created the first modern Santa for the January 3rd, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly.

Nast later expanded upon this Santa, and served to provide the Santa for the Coca-Cola advertising campaign with Santa, leading to the erroneous (and quite ignorant) that Santa was created by Coca-Cola. And the rest, they say, is history.

There are many similar traditions all around the world, but the inclusion of them all would probably double the length of this article, and thus this article’s scope is limited to those traditions that were the founding blocks of the modern Santa.

I hope this article was informative and enlightening, and as stated earlier would be pleased if anyone could offer any corrections/expansions on this article.


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