Ancient Gift Givers & St. Nicholas
In ancient Europe there were many legendary characters that were part of the rich folklore of the era. Some of these early personas were altruistic gift givers that were the earliest predecessors and the beginnings of the first Santa Claus type figures.
St. Nicholas was a fourth century Bishop in Myra (now Turkey) that was known for his great benevolence and love of humanity. St. Nicholas was well known for using his family's fortune in order to assist the needy, the poor and the suffering. A legend states that St. Nicholas once tossed a gold coin through a window in order to help a girl that was about to be sold into slavery or prostitution. By sheer happenstance, the coin landed inside a stocking that was hanging out to dry near the fireplace. As word got around about St. Nicolas' incredible generosity, children started intentionally hanging their stockings out, in hopes that they would be left a coin as well. Even after his death, St. Nicholas' birthday (December 6) was celebrated as a day of gift giving. St. Nicholas was canonized as a saint in about 343 AD and Christians of Europe continued to mark his birthday and memory with a celebration every year going forward.
Odin-The God of Yuletide
In pagan Germany, a mythological god was a part of Ancient folklore as well. His name was Odin and was considered to be the god of Yule, (a pagan midwinter festival) by many of the Germanic peoples. The legend of Odin spoke of a great long bearded man who flew through the sky with the aid of an eight-legged horse. The horse was rumored to not only be able to fly, but apparently could also leap great distances as well. Children in these ancient days would leave carrots, sugar or straw in their boots for Odin’s flying horse, the boots placed carefully near the chimney. Odin was said to reward the children for their kindness with food, sweets or presents.
The Dutch people had a gift-giver figure of their own that was known to the people of Holland as Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas was an elderly, slender, grandiose and somewhat serious man who wore a traditional bishops alb. He was also the first noted gift giver that was rumored to have a book where he would take notes on children’s behavior and would apparently keep careful track of who was being good and who was not. Sinterklaas was reputed to ride over the rooftops on his white horse passing gifts through the chimney to all good children. Sinterklaas carried a staff and was said to have a band of mischievous helpers that would be on alert for children that were misbehaving.
With the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, and during the reformation period of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Protestants as well as other religions moved the traditional gift-giving holiday so that it would be celebrated on Christmas Eve, the birthday of the Christ child.
In later years, immigrants came to the United States, they brought with them all the traditions, legends and folklore surrounding various gift givers from their originating countries. Through time these various histories eventually were combined into one person that we today know as Santa Claus. The idea of a Santa Claus, or Father Christmas as he is known in the United Kingdom, has been around for nearly 1700 years and continues to be one of the most perpetuated, popular and beloved myths of all time.
Santa Claus Gets a Makeover
The ancient visage of the various gift givers had many things in common but certainly the final product was not quite the image we associate with Santa Claus today. A couple of random events occurred which not only changed the face of Santa forever, but gave him a personality, stature and image which has stuck for many generations.
In 1823, a professor from Columbia College named Clement Clark Moore wrote a yuletide poem originally called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” This infamous poem later had the title changed to “The Night Before Christmas.” In the poem, Santa was defined in great detail in a way he had never been before. He was described as plump and jolly. In the poem, Santa wore fur, smoked a pipe and was certainly not a stoic priest, but rather a chuckling, elf-like being with a distinctive twinkle in his eye. The poem described Santa as bounding down the chimney in his Santa suit in order to deliver presents and toys that were carried on his back by means of a large sack. His mode of transportation was no longer a horse, but in the poem, his means of travel was described as sleigh that was driven by eight tiny reindeer, which were for the first time named. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen would become the names of Santa’s reindeer from that point on. With the advent of a simple poem--a legend had now officially been born.
Another event in approximately 1863 also helped to shape, solidify as well as define the persona of Santa Claus. Thomas Nast was an American cartoonist that was asked to draw the Christmas images that would be in a holiday issue of Harper’s Weekly. In his drawings, Nast created a Santa figure that was not really elf-like but was now rather large and jovial. In one of the pictures, a reference was made to Santa’s toy making workshop and residence at the North Pole. Nast is also largely responsible for creating Santa’s naughty and nice list that enables him to keep track of children’s behavior. Nast, in his holiday cartoons, was also responsible for giving Santa the infamous red and white trimmed fur coat he always wears and the clever and skilled fleet of elves as his toy building helpers. Nast was also kind enough to create for dear Santa, a chubby and loving version of Mrs. Claus. Nast took historic legend and folklore but gave it a facelift, bringing a modern and delightful twist to the character we all know as Santa Claus. The image Nast created of Santa Claus has endured from that point on and is deeply imbedded in popular Christmas tradition.
Santa Hits the Mall
It didn’t take long for retailers in those early days to figure out that the image of Santa was good for selling Christmas related goods and his image was often used to advertise the selling of merchandise marketed towards Christmas shoppers. In 1841, a life-size model of Santa was put into the shop of a Philadelphia retailer. Thousands of kids flocked to see the model and it wasn’t long before someone realized that having a ‘live’ Santa in the store for children to visit would be good for business. In the early 1890’s the Salvation Army dressed up men as Santa Claus in order to collect money that would be used to feed poor and needy families. It’s not uncommon even today to see Salvation Army Santa’s out ringing their bells on street corners at Christmastime. One of the most infamous as well as traditional shopping mall Santa’s is that of the flagship store Macy’s in New York City. Since 1924, Santa traditionally makes his annual grand arrival in his sleigh during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Santa Claus will appear virtually everywhere during the holidays and weeks prior to Christmas. His appearance is popular at department stores, malls, and community centers as well as at parties and in private homes.
There are many traditions that surround Santa Claus at Christmastime. Children from around the world enjoy writing Santa letters telling him about their recent (hopefully good) behavior and then will often give him a wish list of gifts they would like to receive for Christmas. Children love to leave Santa a glass of milk and a plate of cookies on Christmas Eve, often close to the hearth near the chimney so he will have a snack ready to eat when he makes his much anticipated entrance. On Christmas Eve, many children (as well as adults) enjoy singing holiday music and songs that feature their beloved Santa and it’s popular to read stories about him as well on the night before Christmas. Of course, you can also bet that children everywhere will be hanging their stockings up on the mantel as well-- in hopes that on Christmas morning they will find them filled with an assortment of Christmas delights.
Knowing the rich heritage and the many traditions that have gone into the making of what has to be one of the most cherished Christmas characters in the world makes the idea of Santa Claus all that more magical. No matter what your Christmas celebration entails, undoubtedly this truly jovial and benevolent being will be close to the heart of your holidays. Dressing up as Santa at Christmas time is a tradition for Christmas that will always be treasured and will be considered a reflection of the true spirit of love and giving that Christmas is all about. Everyone can be a Santa--even if he’s simply in your heart.