Origins Of Santa Claus

This was written in 2005! Hope you like it!

So, my son asked why Santa had more than one name. I think this is a pretty astute obervation for a 5 year old, but he is the smartest 5-year-old in history, just ask him ;-) . So, as I stammered to give him an answer I said, “I will tell you tomorrow, since right now it’s bed time…” Where does one start looking for answers to quesitons in todays technologically advanced society??? Google of course.

A quick look at (and a slight detour to my gmail account) and I was on my way to formulating my answer.

First stop was Where we find some interesting tidbits…

The story

Conventionally Santa Claus is portrayed as a kindly, round-bellied, merry, bespectacled man in a red coat trimmed with white fur, with a long white beard. On Christmas Eve, he rides in his sleigh pulled by flying reindeer from house to house to give presents to children. To get inside the house, he comes down the chimney and lands in the fireplace. During the rest of the year he lives together with his wife Mrs. Claus and his elves who serve as his toy production staff. His home is usually given as either the North Pole in the US and Canada, Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland, Dalecarlia in Sweden, Greenland, or Caesarea when identified as Saint Basil; traditions vary.

Since there would be extreme difficulty in delivering presents to all of the believing children in one night, Santa Claus may be explained to be a time traveller. Since some houses may not have chimneys, ‘magic’ is usually used as an explaining device. In today’s world with toys being store-bought and not homemade anymore, it is obvious to the children that the toys are not made by elves. Many children seem not to care however. This may be stretched by older children, joking that Santa is a ninja or some-such.


The modern Santa Claus is a composite character made up from the merging of two quite separate figures:

The first of these is Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century bishop of Myra in Lycia, a province of Byzantine Anatolia that is 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 wouldn’t have to become prostitutes. He was born at Patara, province of Lycia, Asia Minor. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In Europe (more precisely Holland, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. The relics of St. Nicholas were translated to Bari in southern Italy by some enterprising Italian merchants; a basilica was constructed from 1087 to receive them and a pilgrimage site was established.

An early folk tale, originating in the Germanic states, tells of a holy man (sometimes St Nicholas), and a demon (sometimes the Devil or a troll). The story states that the land was terrorised by a monster who at night would slither down the chimneys and slaughter children (disembowelling them or stuffing them up the flue, or keeping them in a sack to eat later). The holy man sought out the demon, and tricked it with blessed or magical shackles (in some versions the same shackles that imprisoned Christ prior to the crucifixion, in other versions the shackles were those used to hold St Peter or Paul); the demon was trapped and forced to obey the saint’s orders. The saint ordered him to go to each house and make amends, by delivering gifts to the children. Depending on the version, the saint either made the demon fulfil this task every year, or the demon was so disgusted by the act of good will that it chose to be sent back to Hell. Yet other versions have the demon reform under the saint’s orders, and go on to recruit other elves and imps into helping him, thus becoming Santa Claus.

In Greece, Santa Claus is portrayed as being a spirit of Saint Basil (Vasilis in Greek), a bishop from Caesarea who traditionally comes to Greece on New Year’s Day riding on a donkey. Recently though, Greek tradition has conformed to have Santa Claus come around Christmas time.

The second character is Father Christmas, which remains the British name for Santa Claus. 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 well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and was reflected in the “Spirit of Christmas Present” in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Some elements of this part of the tradition of Father Christmas could be traced back to the Germanic god Wodan (Odin). The appearance is similar to some portrayals of this god, who brought gifts in the winter season of Yule, and rides a flying horse through the sky. (The horse, Sleipnir, has eight legs, corresponding to Santa’s eight reindeer.)

When the Dutch still owned New Amsterdam, the city that later became New York, they brought the Saint Nicholas’ eve legend with them to North America, though still dressed as a bishop (see Saint Nicholas for an image). The name Santa Claus is derived from Sinterklaas the Dutch name for the mythical character based on the saint. The date of celebration is the supposed birthday of Saint Nicholas, 6 December (but more likely the date of his death), but the giving of presents often takes place on Sinterklaasavond (”Sinterklaas Eve”) on December 5. Sinterklaas has some similarities to Santa Claus, wearing red, riding a white horse over rooftops and climbing down chimneys to deposit gifts (sometimes in children’s shoes by the fireplace), but he comes from Spain in a steam boat and is accompanied by many helpers named Zwarte Pieten (black Petes). The latter is sometimes regarded as politically incorrect (if not racist), but the tradition is strong. However, the traditional threat of black Petes beating bad kids with a rod or even taking them to Spain in a sack has only survived in songs, of which there are many, sung weeks in advance to anticipate Sinterklaas’ coming. Presents are accompanied with poems, sometimes fairly standardised, sometimes quite elaborate pieces of art that mock events in the past year relating to the receiver (who is thus at the receiving end in more than one sense). The gifts themselves may be just an excuse for the wrapping, which can also be quite elaborate. The more serious gifts may be reserved for the next morning. Since the giving of presents is Sinterklaas’ job, presents are traditionally not given at Christmas in the Netherlands, but commercialism is starting to tap into this market.

In Washington Irving’s History of New York, Sinterklaas was Americanised to “Santa Claus” 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. Santa Claus appeared in various colored costumes as he gradually became amalgamated with the figure of Father Christmas, but red soon became popular after he appeared wearing such on an 1885 Christmas card. His horse was converted to reindeer and a sleigh, the black Petes (which were in fact Moorish slaves) were converted to elves, and the date was moved forward a couple of weeks to coincide with Christmas. Another popularization is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum, the same man who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900.

In the United States, the tradition is to leave Santa a glass of milk and cookies; in Britain, he is given sherry and mince pies instead. British and American children also leave out 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 practise has been discontinued.

Many postal services allow children to send letters to Santa Claus pleading their good behaviour and requesting gifts; these letters may be answered by postal workers or other volunteers. (Canada Post has a special postal code for letters to Santa Claus: H0H 0H0.)

Some people have created websites for Santa on which children can send e-mails to Santa Claus requesting gifts and telling of their good behaviour.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been immortalised in a Gene Autry song, written by a Montgomery Ward copywriter, which is frequently played at Christmas. As such, he is typically included as the sleigh’s lead reindeer. The names of all the other reindeer were invented in the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (better known today as The Night Before Christmas) ascribed to Clement Clarke Moore, although there is some question as to his authorship. The reindeer are traditionally pictured with antlers, although male reindeer shed their antlers in the winter. (Female reindeer keep their antlers until spring.)

Many Christian churches dislike the secular focus on Santa and the materialist focus that present-giving gives to the holiday. They would prefer that focus be given to the birth of Jesus, their nominal reason for the Christmas celebration. It should be noted that the festivities at this time of year are predated by the Roman Saturnalia and Germanic Yule festivals which were subsumed within Christianity. It should also be noted that the date of Jesus’ birth is not known. The connection between Saturnalia and Jesus’ birth was a clerical decision in order to introduce a religious element into the more carnal festivities that the Christian laity were indulging in during winter solstice.

In other countries, the composite figure of Saint Nicholas of Myra and Sinterklaas was blended with local folklore. As an example of the still surviving pagan imagery, in Nordic countries there is the Yule goat (Swedish julbock), a somewhat startling figure with horns which will deliver the presents on Christmas Eve, and a straw goat is a common Christmas decoration. Later, though, in Sweden and Norway, the gift bringer was seen as identical with the Tomte, or tomtenisse, another folklore creature. In Finnish, the Yule Goat survives in the gift bringer’s name, joulupukki.

Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus with an illustration for the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly.One of the first artists to capture Santa Claus’ image as we know him today was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. In 1863, a picture of Santa illustrated by Nast appeared in Harper’s Weekly. It is believed the inspiration for his image came from a mythical German character called Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas) who visited naughty children in their sleep. Urban legend has it that Santa Claus in his current guise (particularly his red and white attire) was created by Haddon Sundblom, an artist working for The Coca-Cola Company, but this is in fact false; the modern image of Santa Claus was already established in the 1920s, years before Sundblom painted the first Coke-promoting Santa1. Nevertheless, Santa Claus and Coca-Cola are still closely associated, and to this day, Santa Claus still appears on Coca-Cola products and advertisements each year around Christmas time.

The depiction of Santa at the North Pole reflected popular opinion about industry. In some images of the early 20th century, Santa was depicted as personally making his toys by hand in a small workshop like a craftsman. Eventually, the idea emerged that he had numerous elves responsible for making the toys, but the toys were still handmade by each individual elf working in the traditional manner. By the end of the century, the reality of mass mechanized production became more fully accepted by the Western public. That shift was reflected in the modern depiction of Santa’s residence—now often humorously portrayed as a fully mechanized production facility, equipped with the latest manufacturing technology, and overseen by the elves with Santa and Mrs. Claus as managers. Many TV commercials depict this as a sort of humorous business, with Santa’s elves acting as a sometimes mischievously disgruntled workforce, cracking jokes and pulling pranks on their boss.

A current popular comic book series Jingle Belle by writer/cartoonist Paul Dini depicts Santa Claus as harried father with a rebellious half-human, half-elf teen age daughter.

Possible parallel origin
American mycologist Jonathan Ott suggests in his book Pharmacotheon (ISBN 0961423498) that many of the modern features attributed to Santa Claus may somehow be derived from those of the Kamchatkan or Siberian shaman. Apparently, during the midwinter festival (holiday season) in Siberia (near the north pole), the shaman would enter a yurt (home) through the shangrak (chimney), bringing with him a sack of fly agaric mushrooms (presents) to give to the inhabitants. This type of mushroom is brightly colored red and white, like Santa Claus, though the relevance of this is questionable as the standardised red and white Santa dates from no earlier than 1920. The mushrooms were often hung (to dry) in front of the fireplace, much like the stockings of modern-day Christmas. Furthermore, the mushrooms were associated with reindeer who were known to eat them and become intoxicated. Reindeer are also associated with the shaman, and like Santa Claus, many people believed that the shaman could fly. (For more information, see this excerpt from The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey by Roger Highfield)

“Santa Claus” in shopping centers

Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, 1918, Toronto, Canada. Having arrived at the Eaton’s department store, Santa is readying his ladder to climb up onto the building.Santa Claus is also a costumed character who appears at Christmas time in department stores or shopping malls, or at parties. He is played by an actor, usually helped by other actors (often mall employees) dressed as elves or other creatures of folklore. His function is either to promote the store’s image by distributing small gifts to children, or to provide a seasonal experience to children by having them sit on his knee (a practice now banned in Britain), state what they wish to get, and often have a photograph taken. The area set up for this purpose is festively decorated, usually with a large throne, and is called variously “Santa’s Grotto”, “Santa’s Workshop” or a similar term. In America the most notable of these is the Santa at the flagship Macy’s store in New York City – he arrives at the store by sleigh in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the last float, and his court takes over a large portion of one floor in the store. David Sedaris is known for the diary he kept while working as an elf in the Macy’s display, which he later published.

Quite often the Santa, if and when realised to be fake, says that he is not the real Santa and is helping him at this time of year. Most young children seem to understand this, as the real Santa would be extremely busy around Christmas.

So, what does that mean to a 5 year old? Nothing really but it’s interesting to those of us who call ourselved Christmas Scholars ;-) .

Until next time…