Tracing Santa Claus

nikolaus-santa-claus-bk-lg.jpgThe popular legend of Santa Claus as we know it today has many origins and has evolved through many centuries to result in that jolly, plump, red-suited figure we recognize so well today. In fact, the tradition of ‘Christmas’, more specifically, winter celebrations, go back a long time before the arrival of Jesus. Early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many people rejoiced in the winter solstice when the harshest part of winter was over, for others this time of the year meant supply of fresh meat, since cattle was slaughtered to avoid the need of feeding them all through winter. InScandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, while the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, worshipping Saturn the god of agriculture. Around the fourth century, when church officials decided to celebrate Jesus’ birth as a day of celebration, Pope Julius I chose December 25 (since the Bible did not mention His date of birth), perhaps to safely merge this Christian tradition with the established pagan traditions of the day. Christmas then was celebrated as a raucous carnival-like entertainment; the themes of Family, peace and goodwill, which are so closely associated with Christmas today, came much later.

The origin of the legend of Santa Claus may be traced back to the monk called St. Nicholas. It is believed that he was born around 280 AD in Patara near Myra in Turkey. He was famous for his generosity and piety and has many legends spun around him. The most famous of them is the story of his saving three pious but poor sisters from being sold into prostitution by providing them with dowry. The name Santa Claus has evolved from his Dutch nickname Sinter Klaas (a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas). In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas or the friendly saint delivers gifts with the aid of helpers known as Zwarte Piet or Black Peter. The folklore of Saint Nicholas has also a lot of resemblance to old Germanic folklores, prior to Christianization. According to Germanic tradition, the god Odin would have a huge hunting-party with other gods at Yule and children, traditionally, would fill their boots with carrots and straw and place them by the chimney for Odin’s Flying horse, Sleipnir to eat. Odin would then reward their kindness by refilling the boots with gifts or sweets. Saint Nicholas has many resemblances to the Odin of the German folklore. The origin of the helpers is ambiguous. They may symbolize the ravens who informed Odin of the world, or may represent the Fallen Devil. These helpers (Zwarte Piet) transformed, in modern-day American culture, into elves.

Santa Claus, as we know him today, is basically an American invention. The Dutch brought with them the legend of Santa Claus to America. In 1804,John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society distributed woodcuts of Saint Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting.

Irving popularized Saint Nicholas further by mentioning him in his book “A History of New York”. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore is believed to have written the famous poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” (popularly called ‘The Night Before Christmas’) which actually forms the basis of the canonical legends that are associated with modern-day Santa. It was in this poem that Santa was first portrayed as a plump and jolly old elf who rode a sleigh with eight reindeers – Blitzem, Comet, Cupid, Dancer, Dasher, Donder, Prancer, and Vixen and delivered gifts to deserving children. Two have since been renamed Blitzen and Donner. Gift giving, especially to children had become an important custom since the holiday’s rejuvenation in

America. The stores therefore successfully tapped the Christmas spirit for commercial purposes by introducing “live” Santa Clauses by the 1840s. In 1863, popular illustrator Thomas Nast created images of Santa that shows the first likeness to our conception of that bearded man today. Nast introduced the elves, Mrs. Claus, the North Pole workshop and of course, the red suit. In 1897, Francis P. Church, editor of the

New York Sun, wrote in response to a question from an eight-year old girl who asked whether Santa really existed. The letter known popularly as “Yes,

Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” sealed the image of Santa in the imagination of young generations.The story of Santa’s most famous reindeer Rudolph came much later, in 1939 when Robert L. May copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store wrote a story of ‘Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer’, which became immensely popular and was later transformed into a song by Johnny Marks.

The evolution of present day Santa came from an unusual mix of different traditions, folklore and perceptions which perhaps goes on to emphasize the tolerance and goodwill towards others that is the quintessential spirit of Christmas…

Sohini Pal