Christmas Traditions > Santa Claus

Posted On December 22, 2009

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Santa Claus, also known as Father Christmas, is the American and British variant of the European folk myth of Saint Nicholas, explaining the source of Christmas presents given to children on Christmas Day.

The Japanese also observe Santa Claus in Christmas, although the holiday is different.

Conventionally, Santa Claus is portrayed as a kindly, round bellied, merry bespectacled man in a red suit trimmed with white fur, with a long white beard. On Christmas Eve, he rides in his flying sleigh, pulled by reindeer, from house to house to give presents to children. During the rest of the year, he lives at the North Pole, in Finnish Lapland, or Dalecarlia in Sweden (traditions vary) together with his wife, Mrs. Claus, and his elves who serve as his toy production staff.

Traditionally, the names of his reindeer are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph, ‘the red-nosed reindeer’, was not one of the original reindeer, but has featured in many modern aspects of the Santa Claus legend, including the song of the same name.

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, a bishop of Myra in Byzantine Anatolia, famous for generous gifts to the poor. In Europe he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.

The second character is Father Christmas, which remains the British name for Santa Claus. Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 1600s in Britain, and pictures survive of him from that era, portrayed as a well-nourished bearded man, dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and is reflected in the ‘Spirit of Christmas Present’ in Charles Dickens famous story, A Christmas Carol’.

When the Dutch still owned the land that later became New York, they brought the Saint Nicholas’ Eve legend with them to the Americas, however without the red mantle and other symbols. Note that in Dutch, the feast is called ‘Sinterklaas feest’, it celebrates the birthday of sinterklaas during Sinterklaasavond [“Sinterklaas’s evening”] December 5th or in Belgium at December 6th. Sinterklaas was Americanized 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.

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. The horse was converted to reindeers and a sleigh. In an attempt to move the origin of the festivities away from their pagan background to a more Christian one, the date was moved a few weeks to the celebrated day of the birth of Jesus, Christmas.

Santa’s image was further modernized by the Coca-Cola Company, who at the turn of the 20th century featured the character in a variety of advertising campaigns. These campaigns helped establish a “uniform” Santa character, whereas prior to this his appearance and costume had varied from artist to artist.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, has been immortalized in a song which is frequently played at Christmas. The other names, outside Rudolph, were invented in a poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas, better known today as The Night Before Christmas, ascribed to Clement Moore, although there is some question as to his authorship. It is suspected that the names Donner and Blitzen come from the German phrase Donner und Blitze which means Thunder and Lightning. An alternative explanation is that Donder is the original name of the seventh reindeer, as Donder en bliksem is Dutch for Thunder and Lightning. 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 pagan Yule festivals which were subsumed within Christianity. A history of Santa Claus was written by L. Frank Baum, the same man who wrote the Wizard of Oz. However, the historical basis for Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas of Myra.

Historically, one of the first artists to capture Santa Claus’ image as we know him today was Thomas Nast, a cartoonist of the 19th century. In 1862, a picture of Santa appeared in Harper’s Weekly by Nast. It is believed the inspiration for his image came from a mythical German character called Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas) who visited mischevious children in their sleep. The Coca-Cola Company featured in its advertising a Santa Claus designed by artist Haddon Sundblom, which helped to popularize the design of Santa that Moore and Nast originated. Urban legend has it that Santa Claus in his current guise was in fact created by Coca-Cola, though this is highly unlikely. To this day, Santa Claus still appears on Coca-Cola products each year around Christmas time.

In addition, the depiction of Santa at the North Pole also reflected toward the popular opinion about industry. In early images in the early 1900s, Santa was depicted as personally making his toys by hand in a small workshop like a craftsman. Eventually, the image changed to the idea 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 which is often humorously depicted as a fully mechanized production facility equipped with the latest manufacturing technology overseen by the elves with Santa and Mrs. Claus as managers. Many TV commercials reflect this depiction with humorous business with the elves as a sometimes michieviously disgruntled workforce cracking jokes and pulling pranks on the boss.

UPDATE > the tradition of Saint Nicholas

Patron Saint of children and sailors, Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century bishop from Myra in Asia Minor. He was famous for giving gifts to children. His feast day, December 6, became a children’s holiday in Holland, where he is known as Sint Nikolaas. English colonists in New York (previously the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam) called him “Santa Claus” because they couldn’t pronounce the Dutch name. The English began celebrating the feast day on Christmas.

Saint Nicholas of Myra

Kriss Kringle, another name for Santa Claus, developed in Germany around 1600. German Protestants recognized December 25, the birth of the Christ child, Christkindl, as the time to give gifts. “Christkindl” evolved into “Kriss Kringle.”

In the Netherlands and Germany, the Santa Claus figure often rode through the sky on a horse to deliver presents to children. He often wore a bishop’s robes and was sometimes accompanied by Black Peter, an elf who whipped naughty children. In addition to the tradition of Saint Nicholas, the three Wise Men gave gifts to the baby Jesus, starting the Christmas gift tradition.