History of Santa Claus - and His Dark Companions
Who is Santa Claus?
Even though most of us willingly immersed ourselves in the belief of the jolly old elf when we were kids, few of us know much about the history of Santa Claus. Even some who are familiar with the history of Santa Claus might not be aware of his dark companions who are completely ignored in America today, for the most part. Actually, our modern version of Santa is an amalgam of characters, customs, and Christmas traditions. It includes elements of Christianity, paganism, mythology, history, and folklore. Leave it to the Americans to create a Santa Claus who’s a melting pot, much like the United States itself. Enjoy the read, and merry Christmas!
St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop who lived in fourth century Anatolia, which is part of present day Turkey. Nicholas was a devoutly religious man who often gave gifts to those who were impoverished. Born in Greece in 270 to wealthy parents, Nicholas secretly left coins in the shoes of poor people who left them outdoors in anticipation of his visit. He’s also associated with numerous miracles, including resurrecting dead children and providing wheat during the time of famine. In art, St. Nicholas is often depicted with a white beard and wearing a mitre and a red cape or cloak.
Nicholas died in 343, but he’s remembered as the patron saint of children, archers, sailors, and merchants, and his feast day is observed each year on December 6th, the date of the saint’s death. More importantly to us, in St. Nicholas we have the beginnings of our beloved Santa Claus.
Odin and Yule
Some Germanic peoples, including the Angles and the Saxons who wound up in what is now England, probably added some of their own pagan elements to St. Nicholas. Their belief in Odin and his attributes were intermingled with the Christian elements of St. Nicholas, including the observance and celebration of Yule. Yule took place on December 25th and was celebrated with a great feast. All sorts of animals were sacrificed in honor of the king, along with Odin and other Norse deities. The blood from the slaughtered animals was spattered over the walls of the temples, and the flesh was cooked as part of the feast.
In some countries, Yule is associated with the “Wild Hunt,” in which Odin and his band of warriors flew across the skies in mad pursuit of their prey. Odin rode an eight-legged gray horse named Sleipnir. This could possibly have served as the basis for Santa’s flying reindeer. Children also placed their shoes or boots near their homes’ chimney and filled the footwear with food for Odin’s horse. The god would reward their kindness by filling the boots with candy and small gifts. It’s not hard to see how this tradition involved into hanging stockings “by the chimney with care.”
In the central and eastern Alpine nations, St. Nicholas is often accompanied by Krampus, or “The Krampus.” The Krampus is a frightening foil to the kind and generous St. Nicholas. Krampus is devil-like in appearance, with horns, shaggy legs, hooves, chains, and a long red tongue. While St. Nick gives gifts to good children, Krampus punishes the bad children. He’s sometimes depicted as carrying a switch and spanking bad kids, and sometimes he even carries them off in a basket to his underground realm of fire.
Obviously, the Krampus has been completely avoided in the modern American version of Santa Claus. Most Americans prefer to think of St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and the overall Christmas celebration as good and positive, and Krampus would certainly not fit into our ideals. Children wouldn’t look forward to a visit from St. Nick if they thought the Krampus might be accompanying the bearded gift-giver!
In the Netherlands and other Low Countries, St. Nicholas’ feast day was celebrated on the night of December 5th instead of on December 6th. Sinterklaas was neither jolly nor all-forgiving. Instead, he’s very serious, and he carries with him a list of good and bad children. The good are rewarded with gifts and candy, and the bad are punished by the saint’s helper, Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter.
The Dutch took their name for St. Nicholas, Sint Nicholaas, and shortened it to Sinterklaas. When settlers from Holland came to America in the 1600s, they brought their customs with them, including Sinterklaas. For the most part, Black Peter was left back in Europe.
Many of the Dutch immigrants lived in what is now New York. In 1773, the Sons of Saint Nicholas was formed, and in 1804, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of New York. In 1809, an American author, Washington Irving, joined the Sons of St. Nicholas and included descriptions of St. Nick in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Irving took some liberties in his descriptions, making Nicholas appear more as a jolly Dutch merchant than like a saintly old gentleman. Irving describes St. Nick as flying through the air on a horse and delivering gifts.
"The Children's Friend"
Americans wanted their own version of St. Nicholas and their own unique Christmas traditions. They didn’t care for the blood and gore of Yule, nor did they embrace the raucous reveling that often accompanied Christmas celebrations in Europe. They also didn’t care much for austere religious observances of Christmas. They preferred their Christmas traditions to be more family oriented – a good combination of festivities and religion. They wanted a kindly, jolly gift-giver, too, with an emphasis placed on children.
A little known poem is probably responsible for a great deal of how we picture the modern American Santa. In 1821, “The Children’s Friend” appeared. In this poem, Sinterklaas is called “Santeclaus,” and he flies “O’re chimney tops” in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Clement Clarke Moore was undoubtedly strongly influenced by this description of St. Nicholas.
Clement Clarke Moore
I’m sure you’re familiar with Moore’s famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” In fact, you can probably quote a good portion of it from memory. What American child doesn’t thrill to Moore’s words in heady anticipation of a gift-laden tree on Christmas morning?
Clarke’s poem was published in 1823, although it was written a year earlier. The poet never intended the work to be published at all because he felt it unworthy of publication. He was wrong, of course, as the poem became a huge success almost immediately. Here was a version of St. Nicholas that Americans were hungry to embrace.
What did Moore give us? He gave us eight reindeer and named them. Stockings were hung by the chimney. St. Nick carried a bag of toys on his back and came down the chimney. The poet also supplied us with a detailed description of St. Nicholas: dressed in fur, smoking a pipe, a round belly, red cheeks, laughing, twinkling eyes, broad face, cherry nose, and plump.
Thomas Nast added more information about Santa Claus and changed his appearance somewhat. Moore had described St. Nick as an elf, but Nast made Santa full size.
Nast was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in the 1840s. A talented illustrator and cartoonist, he landed a job with Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1855, and in 1859, he began working for Harper’s Weekly. Nast gave us the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, and the figure we know as “Uncle Sam.”
Nast’s version of Santa first appeared in an 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly, followed by more depictions of St. Nick created by Nast. In a December, 1866 edition of the periodical, Nast included numerous engravings of Santa. Some depicted the gift-giver as living at the North Pole, which caught on rather quickly. Nast’s drawings and influence is also often credited as being responsible for the name “Santa Claus,” and they certainly influenced other illustrators, including Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth. In the 1920s, these two artists’ versions of Santa graced the covers of such popular magazines as the Saturday Evening Post and The Country Gentleman. For example, the cover of the December 2, 1922 issue of the Saturday Evening Post has a Rockwell picture of a snoozing Santa and elves working on toys.
We can thank the makers of Coke for even more details pertaining to Santa Claus. Starting in 1931, artist Haddon Sundblom began creating depictions of Santa Claus for the Coca-Cola Company. Sundblom used some of Clement Clarke Moore’s descriptions, but he made Santa seem warmer and more human. His Santa appeared in a red suit trimmed with white fur, and the old gentleman was quite rotund. The thirty-three years of Sundblom’s Santa have firmly established the modern version of Santa Claus, not just in the United States, but in much of the world.