My favorite holiday has always been Christmas, and I think I’m in the majority in that regard. The ubiquity of Christmas decorations and Christmas music testifies to that. If you live in Western culture and you’ve ever gone shopping, driven through downtown streets, watched television, or turned on a radio in the month of December, you know exactly what I mean. Christmas-related symbols such as the nativity scene, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus, are universally recognizable, if not quite universally used.
A relatively recent Pew survey says that 96% of American Christians and 81% of American non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Many of those Christmas-celebrating non-Christians argue that Christmas isn’t a specifically Christian holiday, since it has its origins in pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. And they’re not wrong. Although Christmas is a religious event celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the actual date of Christmas Day and some of our favorite Christmas traditions are secular. I personally find it important to focus on the religious aspect of Christmas, but I am not opposed to following and enjoying the non-religious cultural traditions associated with Christmas. The most prominent of those traditions are those associated with Santa Claus. For the fun of it, and in observance of Saint Nicholas’s Day yesterday (December 6) I decided to do a little research on Santa’s history. This is what I found.
The name Santa Claus, which was first used in 1773, is a variant on Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, who was known in his own lifetime as Nikolaos of Myra. Nikolaos was born on March 15, 270 AD, to a well-off Christian Greek family living in a region of the Roman Empire that is part of modern Turkey. He was a bishop who is best known for his role in the First Council of Nicaea. There, he and other church leaders rejected the heresy of Arius, who taught that God the Son (that is, Jesus) is a creation of God the Father, rather than being co-eternal with God the Father as stated in the Nicene Creed. Legend has it that Nikolaos punched Arius in the face at the Council of Nicaea.
He also was known for giving gifts in secret. Supposedly, he would throw toys into children’s windows and leave coins in children’s shoes, which much later gave rise to the idea of Christmas stockings. The most famous story of the saint’s generosity tells of Nikolaos throwing purses full of gold into the house of a poor man who could not afford the dowries for his three daughters. Originally, the story stated that he threw the gold in through the window, but later versions referred to a chimney, although chimneys as we know them didn’t actually exist until the 13th century. In some tellings, Nikolaos tossed loose coins rather than a whole purse down the chimney, and they landed in the daughters’ stockings.
After his death in 343, it became traditional to observe Saint Nicholas’s Day on December 6 by giving gifts. (For the record, Saint Nicholas’ life and death preceded the split between denominations and the establishment of the canonization process used by the Roman Catholic church.) It is believed that it was the sixteenth-century Reformation that transferred holiday gift-giving from early December to Christmas, largely at Martin Luther’s suggestion, in order to put the emphasis of the celebrations on Jesus. In fact, Santa’s alternate name, Kris Kringle, actually comes from the German Kristkindl, (“Christ Child”) which refers to Jesus himself.
Although Saint Nicholas was not by any means forgotten by history, his legacy was best preserved and his saint’s day most enthusiastically celebrated in Holland. St. Nicholas’s Day never was widely celebrated in America, yet St. Nicholas himself became a significant figure in American folklore in the early nineteenth century. The founding of the New York Historical Society sparked an interest in New York City’s largely Dutch heritage. Washington Irving’s humorous story Knickerbocker’s History of New York, written in 1809, followed by the New York Historical Society’s St. Nicholas Day dinner in 1810, brought St. Nicholas legends to the forefront of American Christmas traditions. Irving portrayed St. Nicholas as a Dutch stereotype, while the New York Historical Society went for historical accuracy.
Nikolaos of Myra is usually pictured with a beard, as was typical of men of Greek heritage. Since he lived to be 73 years old, it is safe to say that his beard was white for at least part of his life. However, folklorists note that many aspects of Santa Claus, including his physical appearance, actually come from Norse mythology.
In particular, Santa is inspired by Jul, a persona assumed by the god Odin, also known as Woden. It is from Jul’s name that we get the words Yule and Yuletide, which was a pagan winter festival celebrated in much of Europe that later became blended with Christmas. Like Saint Nicholas, Odin was associated with gift-giving, and his gifts often came into people’s houses via the smokehole in the roof. The western European image of Father Christmas is a blend of the Saxon pagan figure of King Winter and the Viking depiction of Jul. Both Odin and King Winter are always depicted with a long white beard. The round belly also comes from Odin and/or Thor. Stay tuned, there’s more on Odin coming later.
Santa’s Red Suit
This one is actually not so mysterious. The real Saint Nicholas’s bishop robe really was red. The white fur trim came from Father Christmas, who was originally the French, Christianized version of King Winter, but later found his way back into English culture. (An ancient British precursor to Father Christmas, who was actually associated with springtime, wore a green cloak, and the Norse character Jul/Odin usually wore blue.)
Essentially, Santa’s attire as we know it today is a blend of Saint Nicholas’s and Father Christmas’s costumes, but throughout history, Santa’s suit has appeared in many variations. Artist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was key to the codification of Santa’s appearance, especially thanks to his 1881 drawing “Merry Old Santa Claus” for Harper’s Weekly. Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover artwork from the 1920s was also significant. And once Coca Cola started using Santa Claus in advertisements in the early 1930s, Santa’s appearance was basically set in stone.
Stories of Saint Nicholas often depict him riding a white horse, while Odin was said to ride an eight-legged gray horse named Sleipnir. However, Santa’s mode of transportation probably was inherited from Thor, who rode in a flying chariot pulled by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr. (“Teeth-barer” and “teeth-grinder”) Since reindeer really were domesticated and used for pulling sleighs in eighteenth-century Scandinavia, and since non-Scandinavians came to view reindeer as mysterious creatures of the far North, it makes sense that Thor’s flying goats evolved into Santa’s flying reindeer.
It wasn’t until 1821 that Santa’s reindeer make an appearance in a known literary source. (Although Irving’s aforementioned Knickerbocker’s History of New York refers to a flying wagon that Santa uses to deliver his gifts) The lines “Old Santeclaus with much delight/ His reindeer drives this frosty night/ O’er chimneytops and tracks of snow/ to bring his yearly gifts to you” appear in an anonymously authored booklet with the not-so-catchy title A New Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children’s Friend.
The reindeer are first given names in the famous 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, originally published anonymously but later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. (In recent decades, the poem has become better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) It’s worth noting that Donner and Blitzen were originally named Dunder and Blixem, Dutch for “thunder” and “lightning”, which calls Thor to mind. Rudolph was added in 1949 when Johnny Marks wrote the famous song based on a story by Robert L. May.
Milk and Cookies for Santa
The feel-good tradition of leaving milk and cookies for Santa seems to stem back to a Norse custom of leaving hay out for Odin’s horse Sleipner during Yuletide, in case Odin would pass by that way while on a hunting trip. When those Norse stories blended with the Dutch Sinterklaas traditions, it became the saint’s horse who was supposed to eat the hay. It was also said that Santa Claus would snack on the apples and cookies that were used to decorate Christmas trees before ornaments caught on in the 1890s. (For the record, Christmas trees were a purely German phenomenon prior to Queen Victoria, who brought the tradition to England. When her family was photographed by a Christmas tree in 1846, Christmas trees instantaneously became popular in Great Britain and North America.) The modern version of Santa’s milk and cookies probably came about during the Great Depression, when parents used it as a way to teach their children a lesson about sharing.
Letters to Santa
There is one known letter to the actual Saint Nicholas from about 1200, which reads, “St. Nicholas, patron of good children, I kneel for you to intercede. Hear my voice through the clouds and this night give me some toys. I want most of all a playhouse with some flowers and little birds.” Although that sounds surprisingly similar to modern-day letters to Santa, the idea didn’t really catch on for another few centuries.
In the 1800s, some parents would write letters supposedly from Santa Claus, giving their children instructions about their behavior. Fanny Longfellow, wife of the famous poet, wrote in 1853, “You have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit. Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you, God is always near.”
It was only a matter of time before children thought to write letters back, especially since the postal system became faster and cheaper after the Civil War. Although some newspapers received and printed some of the letters, most of them were destroyed until 1913, when charity groups, volunteers, and even postal employees began responding to letters.
Elves have played a role in European folklore for such a long time that it’s impossible to pinpoint the first elf stories. The nature of elves varies greatly depending upon the geographic context and time period of the source. They have been depicted as being similar to (or even synonymous with) fairies, demons, nymphs, gnomes, and dwarves. The idea of elves as miniature people with pointy ears, green clothes and hats, and jolly dispositions comes from the Victorian era.
Some seventeenth-century stories gave their versions of Santa Claus a sidekick, (although usually just one, rather than an entire race) such as the Scandinavian Tomte, Netherland’s Black Peter, or Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht, all of whom are less friendly and good-natured than the modern Christmas elves. Knecht Ruprecht, for example, was a fairly creepy figure who wore a brown robe with a pointed hood, walked with a limp, and beat children with a bag of ashes if they did not pray, which is probably the origin of the idea that bad children get coal in their stockings.
The elves really established themselves in Santa’s image in the nineteenth century. First, Moore’s 1823 poem called Santa himself “a right jolly old elf.” Then, in 1850, eighteen-year-old Louisa May Alcott, who would later write Little Women, wrote a long poem called “Christmas Elves”, although it was never published. Another poem, “The Wonders of Santa Claus” published in Harper’s Weekly in 1857, referred to elves “working with all their might”, and by the 1870s, the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book showed elves in their modern role, making toys for Santa Claus to deliver.
The North Pole
By the early 1800s, Santa Claus was associated with the far North, probably because it’s perpetually winter in that part of the world. The aforementioned artist Thomas Nast is credited with giving Santa Claus a home, as well as imagining Santa’s legendary workshop. At that time, explorers had not yet ventured to the North Pole, so that region had the added adventure of being steeped in mystery. In the 1920s, it was said that Santa actually lived in Finnish Lapland, because reindeer can’t graze at the North Pole, but popular culture has decided that it prefers the concept of Santa’s North Pole workshop.
Santa’s wife is a relatively recent addition to Santa’s story. The first mention that such a person is supposed to exist was a short story written by James Rees in 1849. More details were added in subsequent stories and poems, most notably Katherine Lee Bates’ poem “Goody Santa Claus” from 1889. Goody was a title for the woman of the house that dated back to the middle ages, which is when Bates imagines Santa beginning his career. Since the end of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Claus has appeared in many tellings of the Santa story, and is generally depicted as an elderly, heavyset, grandmotherly lady who loves to make Christmas cookies. Different versions of the story give her different first names.
And that, in a nutshell, is the history of Santa Claus legends. Some aspects of Santa’s story and image have continued to change; for example, Santa’s presence in malls and department stores was a new development in the 1930s, and the Elf on the Shelf practice is only ten years old. But some of the most interesting parts of the Santa Claus legend have been around for centuries.