All about Santa - Myth, Origin, Lies, Truths
In looking for the historical roots of Santa Claus, one must go
very deep in the past. One discovers that Santa Claus as we know him is a
combination of many different legends and mythical creatures. Like so many
other American traditions, he's a product of the great American melting pot - a
blend of many different cultures and customs. His earliest ancestors date back
to pre-Christian days, when sky-riding gods ruled the earth. The mythological
characters Odin, Thor, and Saturn gave us the basis for many of Santa's
distinctive characteristics. The basis for the Christian-era Santa Claus
is actually a real person - Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna (Izmir), in what is now
Turkey. Nicholas lived in the 4th century A.D. He was very rich, generous, and
loving toward children. Often he gave joy to poor children by throwing gifts in
through their windows.
The Orthodox Church later raised St. Nicholas, miracle worker, to a position of great esteem. It was in his honor that Russia's oldest church, for example, was built. For its part, the Roman Catholic Church honored Nicholas as one who helped children and the poor. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children and seafarers. His name day is December 6th. In the Protestant areas of central and northern Germany, St. Nicholas later became known as der Weinachtsmann. In England he came to be called Father Christmas. St. Nicholas made his way to the United States with Dutch immigrants, and began to be referred to as Santa Claus. Over the centuries, customs from different parts of the Northern Hemisphere thus came together and created the whole world's Santa Claus - the ageless, timeless, deathless white-bearded man who gives out gifts on Christmas.
From Bishop To Commercial Pitchman
In a well known story illustrating St, Nicholas' benevolence, we find two of the
basic principles of the holiday spirit - giving to others and helping the less
fortunate - as well as the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace.
According to this legend, there were three Italian maidens whose families had fallen on hard times. Because their father could not afford the dowries necessary for them to marry, he was considering selling one of his daughters into slavery to get dowries for the other two. When the good saint heard of the family's plight, he went to their home late one night and anonymously tossed three bags of gold down the chimney. Miraculously, a bag fell into each of the sisters stockings, were hanging by the fire to dry. His kindhearted gift made it possible for all three sisters to marry.
A variation of this story is that as each girl was ready to wed, St. Nicholas came in the middle of the night when no one could see him and tossed a bag of gold through an open window into her stocking. The idea of gifts being delivered through an open window may have begun as a way to explain how Santa enters homes that have no chimney.
Because of his wisdom and sensitivity, many groups claimed St. Nicholas as their patron saint. Children, orphans, sailors, and even thieves often prayed to the compassionate saint for guidance and protection. Entire countries, including Russia and Greece, also adopted him as their patron saint, as well as students and pawnbrokers.
Christians believed in one god and one god alone, so their conscience
would not allow them to obey the Emperor's order. Angered by their
stubbornness, Diocletian warned the Christians that they would be
imprisoned. The Emperor carried out the threat and St Nicholas was also
imprisoned. For more than five years, St Nicholas was confined to a small
cell. In 313, when Diocletian resigned, and Constantine came to power
Nicholas was released, and he returned to his post as Bishop of Myra. He
continued his good works and became even wiser and more understanding by
the time of his death on December 6, 343.
In the eyes of the Catholics, a saint is someone who has lived such a holy life that, after dying and going to heaven, he or she is still able to help people on earth. They often become patron to different groups of people - one such was children and many legends sprang up to explain his presence.
Throughout his life, St. Nicholas tried to help others while inspiring the to imitate his virtues. Legends of his unselfish giving spread all over Northern Europe, and accounts of his heroic deeds blended with regional folklore. Eventually, the image of the stately saint was transformed onto an almost mystical being, one known for rewarding the good and punishing the bad.
The date of his death, December 6th, was commemorated with an annual feast, which gradually came to mark the beginning of the medieval Christmas season. On St. Nicholas' Eve, youngsters would set out food for the saint, straw for his horses and schnapps for his attendant. The next morning, obedient children awoke to find their gifts replaced with sweets and toys, found their offering untouched , along with a rod or a bundle of switched. St. Nicholas' Day is still observed in many countries, and gifts are exchanged in honor of the spirit of brotherhood and charity that he embodied.
After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the feasting and veneration of Catholic saints were banned. But people had become accustomed to the annual visit from their gift-giving saint and didn't want to forget the purpose of the holiday. So in some countries, the festivities of St. Nicholas' Day were merged with Christmas celebration - celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and although the gift-bearer took on new, non-religious forms, he still reflected the saints generous spirit.
In the areas where St. Nicholas was still portrayed as the gift-bearer, a host
of other characters developed to be his assistants. Two of his most well-known
helpers were Knecht Ruprecht and the Belsnickle. Depending on the local
tradition, they were either attendants to St. Nicholas or gift-bears themselves,
but in all cases, both were fearsome characters, brandishing rods and switches.
It was not only their dusty to reward good children but also to reprove children
who were naughty and couldn't recite their prayers.
Knecht Ruprecht (meaning Servant Rupert) was also by other names such as Black Peter (so called because he delivered the presents down the chimney for St. Nicholas and became blackened with soot).
In some places, the images, of Knecht Ruprecht and St. Nicholas merged to form Ru Klaus (meaning Rough Nicholas - so named because of his rugged appearance), Aschen Klaus (meaning Ash Nicholas - because he carried a sack of ashes as well as a bundle of switches), and Pelznickle (meaning Furry Nicholas - referring to his fur clad appearance).
Not all of St. Nicholas' companions were frightening. In fact, the Christkindl (meaning Christ Child) was thought to accompany him in many countries. Often portrayed by a fair-haired young girl, this angelic figure was sometimes the gift-bearer too.
Immigrants to the New World brought along their various beliefs when they
crossed the Atlantic. The Scandinavians introduced gift-giving elves, the
Germans brought not only their Belsnickle and Chistkindle but also their
decorated trees and the Irish contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of placing a
lighted candle in the window.
In the 1600's, the Dutch presented Sinterklaas (meaning St. Nicholas) to the colonies. In their excitement, many English-speaking children uttered the name so quickly that Sinterklaas sounded like Santy Claus. After years of mispronunciation, the name evolved into Santa Claus.
In 1808, American author Washington Irving created a new version of old St. Nick. This one rode over the treetops in a horse drawn wagon "dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites." In his satire, Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad brimmed hat. Also, the familiar phrase, "...laying his finger beside his nose...," first appeared in Irving's story.
That phrase was used again in 1822 in the now-classic poem by Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," more commonly know as "The Night Before Christmas." His verse gave an Arctic flavor to Santa's image when he substituted eight tiny reindeer and a sleigh for Irving's horse and wagon. It is Moore's description of Santa that we most often think of today: "He had a broad face, and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly."
Up to this point, Santa's physical appearance and the color of his suit were open to individual interpretation. Then in 1863, Thomas Nast, a German immigrant, gave us a visual image of the cheerful giver that was to later become widely accepted.
When Nast was asked to illustrate Moore's charming verse for a book of children's poems, he gave us a softer, kinder Santa who was still old but appeared less stern than the ecclesiastical St. Nicholas. He dressed his elfin figure in red and endowed him with human characteristics. Most important of all, Nast gave Santa a home at the North Pole. For twenty-three years, his annual drawings in Harpers Weekly magazine allowed Americans to peek into the magical world of Santa Claus and set the stage for the shaping of today's merry gentleman.
Artist Haddon Sundblom added the final touches to Santa's modern image. Beginning in 1931, his billboard and other advertisements for Coca Cola-Cola featured a portly, grandfatherly Santa with human proportions and a ruddy complexion. Sunblom's exuberant, twinkle-eyed Santa firmly fixed the gift-giver's image in the public mind.
Santa As Maze
How Old Man Christmas became Santa Claus?
The history of Finland's own Santa Claus is related to the world's most widely
known story about Saint Nicholas, the benefactor of all children and poor
In St. Nicholas'day, the mighty empire of Rome was under Constantine the Great (c. 274 - 337 BC), who established Christianity. But Constantine was also, typically of his own time, a cruel sovereign: he who did not obey him was thrown for beasts of prey to be clawed to death.
At that time, Bishop Wulfila of the Visigoths (c. 311 - 383 AD) was sent to convert the Goths to the Christian faith. The Goths were Germans who are told to have moved to the territory of today's Germany from southern Sweden. As early as in the years 300 - 600, the Eketorp Fortress on the Island of Íland had permanent settlement.
In St. Nicholas' time, furs were exported from Finland to the freezing people of the South, and from there, from the Roman Empire, glassware and bronze objects were imported here. Young Bishop Wulfila and Emperor Constantine contacted Bishop Nicholas in secret and asked him to make a reconnaissance expedition, in support of converting and under the pretext of trading, to the northern corners of Europe, where heathens lived. It must be kept in mind that the converting proper of the Northern peoples started, however, not until the 12th century, although Christianity had become the only faith allowed in the Roman Empire as early as in the year 380. The Bishop and the Emperor hoped that it would be possible to make the Northern people wiser, as they were known to be very odd.
St. Nicholas was a skilled sailor, and he now dressed in the disguise of a merchant and headed on his sailboat towards the North. After several months of sail, he arrived in what is now the Turku region, which used to be very small at that time. In the valley of the River Aura, there are known to have been dwelling places as early as six thousand years ago, but when St. Nicholas arrived there, only a few hovels were scattered along the riverside, and most of today's land area was covered with water. But nevertheless, people wore beautiful golden and silver jewellery.
At his arrival in Turku, St. Nicholas was a bit puzzled, as he did not understand a word of the language that was spoken there. Luckily he met by accident an old man who had lived in Rome and who agreed to act as his interpreter. The language that the man knew was naturally Latin.
The interpreter told the bishop, or the merchant, that he was now in a country
that was split into two parts: into the southernmost country and a country
called the Arctic Circle. Nearly all the contemporary inhabitants lived in the
southernmost country. Not much was known about the Arctic Circle besides that in
winter there were huge banks of snow and always freezing cold. That was why no
one really dared to go there. The interpreter also wanted St. Nicholas to meet
the wisest man living in the southernmost country.
This wise man was the nowadays well-known Gnome of the Turku Castle, who administered Turku together with his elfin brothers, although the Castle had not yet been built by that time. The Gnome was appointed to his office when the construction work of the Castle was begun, i.e. in the 13th century. The Bishop revealed to the Gnome that he was not really a merchant but a bishop who had come to the country on a wholly different kind of errand.
The men became friends, and as both of them had the gift to work miracles, they decided to do one for the benefit of all children in the world, since St. Nicholas had already done secret and good deeds in his own country. It so happened that St. Nicholas forgot his proper function, and he decided once again to help people. However, it was not until after hundreds of years that these new miracles became known to the wide public. They were to wait for this long, as it was not until then that it became evident that at last there were hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of well-behaved children in the world.
You Know Your Famous When...
It appeared that the Gnome of the Turku Castle had a good friend called Old Man
Christmas. He lived, then already, at the Arctic Circle, and he was one of the
few who could live there, since he, too, possessed skills that enabled him to do
mysterious things. Old Man Christmas told St. Nicholas that the word "Christmas"
meant an old mid-winter feast, because Old Man Christmas had then arrived in the
world and got his name after this feast. The word "Christmas" received
afterwards a whole new meaning in Rome in the 350 century AD, which marked the
time when Christmas was first celebrated as the anniversary of the birth of
The Gnome told St. Nicholas that his name came from an old popular belief prevailing in Finland and in Scandinavia, according to which an elf or a fairy is to see to the happiness and welfare of a household, and that the Gnome had already done this kind of work for many years in Turku, and is still continuing this work at this very moment - just like the famous Finnish writer Sakari Topelius has told us in his beautiful story.
Old Man Christmas moved then back to the Arctic Circle and changed his name later to Santa Claus. And he took permanent residence in Korvatunturi, from where he occasionally travels with his flying reindeer to Turku to meet his old pal, the Gnome of the Turku Castle. Nicholas returned to his own empire and made the future Santa Claus take an oath to bring the message of peace, goodwill, harmonious co-existence, joy and happiness to all people on the Earth. And that is what Santa Claus has done all his life. This also provides us with an explanation for why the Yuletide peace is proclaimed in Turku of all places.
T'was the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, --not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DONDER and BLITZEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
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 of 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 bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT."
That poem was written in 1822. The drawing below was made 40 years later, and shows Saint Nicholas as not only being both of those, but here's the white beard, too. He is still generous, though this time it is to soldiers away from home in battle.
Deeper Into Thomas Nasts' Santa
Thomas Nast "invented" the image popularly recognized as Santa Claus. Nast first drew Santa Claus for the 1862 Christmas season Harper's Weekly cover and center-fold illustration to memorialize the family sacrifices of the Union during the early and, for the north, darkest days of the Civil War.
Nast's Santa appeared as a kindly figure representing Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of Christ. His use of Santa Claus was melancholy, sad for the faltering Union war effort in which Nast so fervently believed, and sad for the separation of soldiers and families.
When Nast created his image of Santa Claus he was drawing on his native German tradition of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop known for his kindness and generosity. In the German Christian tradition December 6 was (and is) Saint Nicholas day, a festival day honoring Saint Nicholas and a day of gift giving.
Nast combined this tradition of Saint Nicholas with other German folk traditions of elves to draw his Santa in 1862. The claim that Nast "invented" Santa Claus in 1862 is thus accurate, but the assertion overlooks the centuries-long antecedents to his invention.
Santa Claus thrived thereafter in American culture both Christian and secular. During the Civil War, Christmas was a traditional festival celebration in the United States, although not yet a holiday. In Nast's time Christmas was not a day when offices or factories closed; but the development of Christmas as a holiday and the use of Santa Claus as a secular symbol of gift giving removed from its Christian antecedents occurred during Nast's lifetime. The modern American celebration of Christmas, with its commercialized gift exchanges, developed in cities, led by New York, after 1880.
Well, we have him happy. We have him jolly and round. We have the facial features that also came out in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street" done in 1940. But where did the red fur-lined outfit come from?
We don't really know! It was known in 1927, as The New York Times reported on 27 November 1927:
A standardized Santa Claus appears to New York children. Height, weight, stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood and the white whiskers. The pack full of toys, ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows and a jolly, paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite make-up.
Standardized in 1927, at least for the city of New York. So it was NOT created by the Coca-Cola company. But, they sure made this version spread fast!
At the beginning of the 1930s, the Coca-Cola company was looking for ways to increase sales during winter, a slow time of year for the soft drink market. They turned to a commercial illustrator named Haddon Sundblom, who created a series of memorable drawings that associated the figure of a larger than life, red-and-white garbed Santa Claus with Coca-Cola.
Coke's annual advertisements -- featuring Sundblom-drawn Santas holding bottles of Coca-Cola, drinking Coca-Cola, receiving Coca-Cola as gifts, and especially enjoying Coca-Cola -- became a perennial Christmastime feature which helped spur Coca-Cola sales throughout the winter (and produced the bonus effect of appealing quite strongly to children, an important segment of the soft drink market). They use polar bears today! The success of this advertising campaign helped standardize the modern Santa Claus, decking him out in a red-and-white suit, which were also the company colors.
Santa Makes A Dandy Corporate Marketing Tool
Eventually, admiration for Saint Nicolas gets pretty wide spread. Greeks, Italians, Spanish and other Catholics had been celebrating Saint Nicholas for a long time.
By 450, churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in honor of him. By 800, he was officially recognized as the a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church.
In the 1200s, December sixth began to be celebrated as Bishop Nicholas Day in France.
By end of the 1400s, St Nicholas was the third most beloved religious figure, after Jesus and Mary. There were more than 2000 chapels and monasteries named after him.
In the 1500s people in England stopped worshipping St Nicholas (too Catholic for the King's taste), and renamed him Father Christmas. That way the Anglican children could still get presents.
Children naturally want to know where Santa Claus actually comes from. Where did he live when he wasn't delivering presents? Those questions gave rise to the legend that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole, where his Christmas-gift workshop was also located - because - who can get to the North Pole? The secret can stay safe that way.
Santa Slays Me!