Just Who is Santa Claus, Anyway? History and Traditions

Dear Santa Claus, Who Are You?!

Most of us today think we know Santa Claus. We think he's this big, fat, jolly old man with a white beard, flying around the sky on Christmas Eve in a magical sleigh pulled by eight magical reindeer, making stops on the roofs of everyone's house just so he can slide down their chimney and leave presents for all the girls and boys for being good the past year.

He wears a red velvet suit with a white fur trim, a black belt with a golden buckle, and black boots to match. He carries his presents in a red velvet bag and the bag seems to have no bottom to it--how else could he fit all of his presents for all of the boys and girls in the world into one little bag?

He enjoys Christmas cookies and milk, which children leave for him next to the chimney. And when he's all done delivering his presents, he and his eight magical reindeer return home to the North Pole where Mrs. Claus is waiting for them.

Yes, this is the Santa Claus we all know and love. But where in the world did this story come from? Flying reindeer? A magical sleigh? Sneaking into homes using the chimney? A red velvet suit? A bag of endless gifts for all the boys and girls in the world? The North Pole? (Why would anyone want to live there?!)

Haven't you ever wondered where all these traditions came from? Have you really every sat back, scratched your head, and asked, "Just Who IS Santa Claus?" Well, have we got a treat for you! In this HubPage, we'll share with you the origins of the modern Santa Claus--where it all started and how our modern perception of him has changed and become solidified over the past...oh...1500 years or so. Enjoy!

How a Tradition is Born

To understand how we have arrived at our modern day concept of just who Santa Claus is, we first need to understand a bit about history and how it works. Throughout history, it can be seen that whoever is in power at the time tends to dictate the beliefs of the day. When one people would conquer another people, the beliefs and traditions of the dominating people would either replace or be incorporated into the the beliefs and traditions of those who were conquered.

Many times, rather than requiring the conquered people to completely give up their belief system, the conquering people would allow them to maintain certain beliefs and traditions, but put a bit of a "spin" on them to make them more and more like the conquering people's beliefs.

A very basic example of this can be demonstrated in the Christian celebration of Christmas. Most Christians believe Christmas is celebrated as the day Christ was born, when in fact, most scholars believe Christ was born during the Summer months. However, as Christianity began to dominate Europe, the Pagan winter festival of Yule, which was celebrated in late December into early January, was absorbed by the Christian religion and transformed into Christmas, the celebration of Christ's birth. 

The Christians figured they'd never get the Pagans to stop celebrating Yule during the Winter, so instead of trying to stop the celebration of Yule altogether, they adapted the meaning of its celebration into that of the birth of Christ.  Eventually, Yule-time became known as Christmas-time.

In this way, the long-time Winter festival celebration was not completely stomped-out, just "adjusted" to fit into the Christian religion better. It took many, many years for adaptation to take place, but hundreds of years later, if you ask anyone on the street what Yule was, or when Christ was born, I bet they couldn't give you accurate answers--the adaptation is complete.

So, you see now that history has a way of molding and absorbing old beliefs and traditions into new, more modern, more accepted ways. He who has power can change history to his liking. Keeping this in mind will help you understand where the modern day concept of Santa Claus came from. Let's begin...

Santa Was Originally a Germanic God?

The earliest origins of our modern day Santa Claus can be traced back to ancient Germanic people and their belief in their God, Odin. Odin was one of the main Norse Gods, and during the Pagan holiday of Yule, stories were told of him leading a hunting party through the sky with his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir (Eight-legged horse...eight reindeer...hmm).

Each year, as the Yule festival approached, children would fill their boots with food for this eight-legged horse and place them near their chimney at night. As a way of saying thank you to these children for their gifts, Odin would fill their boots back up with candy for the children to enjoy the next morning. This ancient tradition has survived and adapted to the tradition of stockings being hung on the fireplace mantle, only to be overflowing with candy on Christmas morning.

Just like many ancient Pagan holidays, the celebration of Yule was marked by a huge feast of food, dancing, drinking, animal sacrifice, and fertility sacrifice. The story of Odin and his Wild Hunt was told and retold every year.

As the Germanic people began to be conquered by Christianity, many of their traditional Yule-tide practices were adapted to fit a more Christian belief system. As previously stated, the ancient beliefs were not totally squelched, they were just "modified". People could continue to celebrate during the time of the traditional Yule-time, but practices such as animal sacrifice and fertility sacrifice were "looked down upon" and eventually no longer practiced.

As time went on, many of the original tales were replaced with more Christian ideologies--Odin was no longer the main God of the celebration, the Christian God was. Yule was not a celebration of the Wild Hunt, or as a thank you for the past fertile and peaceful season, but a celebration of the birth of Christ. And the concept of magic was replaced by the concept of miracle.

Eventually, all pagan aspects were removed form the holiday, Yule became Christmas, and Odin became a real historical figure, Saint Nicholas.

Enter Saint Nicholas

As Christianity began to dominate the ancient world, one particular saint emerged as the perfect "replacement" for the Pagan God, Odin. His name was Saint Nicholas. He was an actual person; a Greek Bishop who lived during the 4th century in what we now know as Turkey.

St. Nicholas was a very giving man. He was known for his secret gift-giving and his benevolence to the poor. He has always been portrayed as a bearded man in red velvet canonical robes (Hmm...bearded man who wore red velvet, huh?).

St. Nicholas is best known for saving the plight of three poor sisters who, without proper dowries to offer potential husbands, were destined to become prostitutes just to survive. St. Nicholas was said to have visited the home of these three sisters on the eve of each of their "Coming of Age" and tossing a bag of coins in through the window for each of them to offer as dowries to potential suitors. In one version of this story, St. Nicholas actually drops the bag of coins into the chimney, where it lands in a stocking one of the daughters had just washed and hung to dry.

St. Nicholas was also known to put coins into shoes or boots that were left outside the home--this may also contribute to the modern practice of hanging stockings on the mantle in anticipation of them being filled with treats on Christmas morning.

Because of his giving ways and the overall good feeling St. Nicholas provided for people, it only makes sense that this man would become the ideal model for our modern day Santa Claus. As Christianity gained power in formerly Pagan traditions, St. Nicholas and Odin merged together to form the beginnings of the Santa Claus we all know today.

A pious man, known for gift-giving and sympathy for the less fortunate, wearing red velvet, bearded, and flying around the sky...I don't know about you, but I'm starting to see the makings of our beloved Santa Claus emerging!

Other Influences to the Modern Santa Claus

As the fame of St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe, he began to be known as Sinterklaas--especially in Dutch tradition. He had a day of celebration all his own--December 6th of each year. The celebration would consist of parades in the streets, plenty of food, dancing, and singing, and the tradition of gift-giving--all in the name of Christianity.

The image of Sinterklaas was often portrayed as being assisted by small, mischievous boys whose job it was to hold open Sinterklaas' bag for him to pull out a present to give to a good little girl or boy. You can see where the idea that Santa has little helper elves to assist him may have come from...

The combination of the ancient Norse God, Odin, along with the true historical man, St. Nicholas, and the glorified version of St. Nicholas known as Sinterklaas, merged with the later British character known as Father Christmas to form a closer version of our modern day Santa Claus.

Whew! That's a lot of adaptation, huh? But we're not done!

As time went by, and the concept of Santa Claus became more an image than an actual portrayal of an ancient God or a real saint, storytellers, writers, and artists began to embellish the image of Santa Claus. They used snippets of old folklore to spin grand stories about Santa Claus--what he looked like, where he was from, and his "purpose" in life.

What began to emerge in the early 1800's is the image of Santa Claus we are familiar with today.

In the New World, Americans wanted to be associated with England as little as possible--at least for the first couple hundred years of our existence. Because of this, we tended to stray away from the British version of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and really used the Dutch traditions of Christmas and Sinterklaas to form our Santa.

In the early 1800's, an author named Washington Irving named St. Nicholas the patron saint of the city of New York in his book, The History of New York. He referred to St. Nick as Santa Claus, and the name stuck.

Later, in 1823, a poem written by Clement Clarke Moore, which we now know as The Night Before Christmas, was published in the Troy, NY, Sentinel. This one poem, with its description and names of all eight of Santa's reindeer, flying sleigh landing on the roof, St. Nick slipping down the chimney, bag of toys, rotund belly, and stocking-stuffing-ways, was probably one of the most single most important portrayals of the American Santa Claus. Moore's words did more to solidify the image and story of Santa Claus than probably any other work in history.

In 1863, an artist named Thomas Nast drew the first image of Santa Claus as a round, jolly fellow. The drawing was published in Harper's Weekly, a very popular political magazine of the time, based in New York City. This image acted as a springboard for all future images of the American Santa Claus.

Nast continued to publish his Santa Claus creations in Harper's Weekly for years, and each year, his "story" of Santa Claus (as told through his drawings and paintings) expanded to include images of Santa's Workshop at the North Pole, Santa's now famous red suit with white trim, his little helper elves, and even his wife, Mrs. Claus.

Beginning in the 1930's, Santa Claus' image was further popularized by an artist named Haddon Sundblom, who worked for the Coca Cola Company. Sundblom created numerous advertising images of jolly old St. Nick enjoying a refreshing Coca Cola beverage.

Obviously, by this time, American retailers had caught on to the fact that Santa Sells! Santa Clause became a huge figure in holiday advertising, selling everything from food and drink, to cigarettes, to automobiles, to anything you could purchase from a department store! Retailers felt the need to maintain uniformity and consistency in advertising, so by the 1930's, when Santa became such a spokes model for advertising, retailers all, in a way, silently agreed upon a traditional image of Santa.

And hence, we have our modern day Santa Clause!

It Was a Long Journey...

...but thank you for taking it with us! We hope you enjoyed learning about the origins of Santa Claus. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, you have to admit, the character of Santa Claus has come a long way!

And I think you would agree with me when I say that all of the myths, stories, true characters, traditions, and practices that contributed to the creation of our modern day Santa Claus deserve a little credit for bringing about this iconic, jolly man intent on bringing the holiday spirit wherever he shows his rosy cheeks!

Happy Holidays!

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Leave Us a Comment! 2 comments

Fictioneer profile image

Fictioneer 3 years ago from Orlando, Florida

What a great piece of history, I felt privileged to read your story.

onceuponatime66 profile image

onceuponatime66 5 years ago from USA IL

Outstanding hub on Christmas traditions, well done!

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