The festive season is approaching, and Santa Claus begins his preparations for his annual global voyage to deliver Christmas presents. But where is Santa Claus from? What’s his story? And where do all the traditions surrounding the plump, old, bearded guy dressed in red all come from?
The common story (in the Anglophone world at least) is that Mr and Mrs Santa Claus live at Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole, where his elves prepare presents and Santa’s reindeers pull his sleigh around the world. However, to know more about Santa’s ‘origin story’, we need to leave Santa to his busy work at the North Pole and set off on a journey through culture and history.
Much the traditions and imagery around Santa Claus, and Christmas generally, are seen in a ‘Western’/European cultural context, perhaps unsurprising given the history of Christianity in Europe. However, like the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, Santa’s origins come from the Middle East, here through the story of a 4th century Greek bishop called Saint Nicholas in Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre, Turkey).
Among his many reputed miracles and charitable acts, Nicholas of Myra is best known for his gift-giving, including secretly gifting three purses of gold to a family of three daughters who could not afford their dowry. Indeed, one version of this story has him throwing it down the chimney, one can see some similarities to Santa Claus here. The feast day of Saint Nicholas is 6th December, and the proximity of this date to the (eventual) date of Christmas celebration has helped link Saint Nicholas to Christmas.
The feast of Saint Nicholas evolved into a cause for celebration and gift-giving in many places in Western/Central medieval Europe, and in many places continues to be celebrated. For example, in ‘the Low Lands’, sailors would return from sea on the 6th to celebrate at church, and then pick up gifts from Nicholas fairs for their families.
An example that continues, is the Sinterklaas celebrations in The Netherlands, where traditionally Sinterklaas is said to arrive by boat from Spain (due to misconception from medieval times). When on land, the controversial Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’), mischievous helpers of Sinterklaas with black faces and colourful Moorish dresses give sweets to children, originating from the Nicholas of Myra gift-giving.
Moving across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam and Dutch colonists continued the traditions of Sinterklaas, and their ancestor did once the city became New York. It was here where ‘Sinterklaas’ became anglicised to ‘Santa Claus’ in American press in 1773, and with elements of the British character Father Christmas, merged to form the popular image of Santa Claus today.
In 1809, the author Washington Irving, in an account of the history of New York Dutch culture portrayed Santa Claus without his Sinterklaas bishop’s hat, but now as plump Dutch sailor with a pipe and winter coat. In 1823, the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas"), furthered the ‘plump and jolly’ image of Santa, as well as building on an 1821 children’s book describing Santa delivering presents with a reindeer sleigh.
By the mid 19th century, Christmas, Santa Claus and present giving was growing in popularity in USA, with the first Christmas shopping advertising in 1820s, and in 1841 a Philadelphia shop attracted thousands of children with a life size model of the newly popular Santa Claus. By 1863, Thomas Nast illustrated Santa in a political cartoon and later, designated him a home at the North Pole, as well as his red and white attire.
The benevolent image of Santa was furthered the 1890s when charities, including the Salvation Army, started dressing up homeless people as Santa Claus to raise money. Images of Santa Claus were further popularised through The Coca-Cola Company's Christmas advertising in the 1930s, and this such image persists to this day.
However, the story of Santa Claus and traditions surrounding him and Christmas is possibly more complex and takes inspiration from several traditions in Western culture. It is theorised Santa has taken on elements of the Germanic god Wodan/Odin, who was associated with the pagan midwinter event of Yule, leading ‘The Wild Hunt’, a supernatural procession through the sky.
Pagan traditions around the widely revered god Odin/Wodan in both Viking Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon Britain included midwinter traditions of Odin as the Longbeard and Yule Figure leading the hunt. Thus, with the later Christianisation of these regions, it was easy to ‘replace’ this festival with the date of Christmas and Saint Nicholas too. Furthermore, the nightly rides with Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, bare similarities to Sinterklaas’ horse or Santa’s reindeer.
Possible echoes of this fusing of pagan and Christian traditions around Christmas/midwinter can be seen in the British of ‘merrymaking and feasting’ in 12th to 14th century Britain, probably representing a continuation of pre-Christian traditions. However, this idea later became a personification - through 15th and 16th century, accounts of ‘King of Christmas’ and ‘Captain Christmas’ leading the feasting. This later evolved into ‘Father Christmas’ after the English Civil War.
Father Christmas, generally portrayed as a genial man in dressed in green was believed to bring joy, good food and revelry. However, his popularity had declined until his portrayal in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843), which helped revive the figure. Today, he is often blurred into Santa Claus, but much of Santa’s characteristics are taken from him.
The Finnish tradition of Joulupukki (literally ‘Christmas/Yule Goat’) also has its roots in pagan traditions, linked to Odin’s Wild Hunt. The modern Joulupukki is a man dressed in red leather coat, but may also be a ‘goat-man’, and he travels in his sleigh on the Winter Solstice pulled by his (non-flying) reindeer to deliver presents at the front door.
According to legend, he lives with his wife, Joulumuori, in Lapland with assistants called ‘joulutonttu’, which are human dwarf-like charaters in the same tradition of Nisse (see later). Some theorise that Joulupukki is the earliest form of Santa, with pagan traditions around sun cycles being easier to absorb into the existing feast of Saint Nicholas. The Yule Goat has been thought to originally be an ugly creature, frightening children, though while this more paganistic costume has mostly turned into a ‘Santa like’ figure, he is still called ‘Yule Goat’.
Similar to other traditions of Saint Nicholas, is the Hungarian figure of Mikulás (or Szent Miklós), although this tradition also exists in Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia and Czechia. Like Sinterklaas, he appears in bishop’s attire and delivers treats on St Nicholas’ feast day of 6th December. Hungarian children will traditionally put a boot, which must be polished, on their windowsill for Mikulás to fill with sweets and treats into boots that are shiny enough.
Mikulás is often accompanied with a ‘good angel’ who delivers good presents; and ‘Krampus’, a mean elf, sometimes portrayed as a devil, who punishes bad children. While good children may receive sweets, chocolate and nuts; bad children may receive a wooden spoon, carrots or a lump of coal. Characters may also hold virgács, a broom like ‘switch’ made out of bushes or will, and given between adults.
The Basque tradition of ‘Olentzero’ is a curious conflation of Basque paganism and Christianity, and other influences. Often carried in a Basque town as an effigy, Olentzero is a middle aged man dressed in traditional working clothes, sometimes seen blackened with charcoal from his charcoal burner. Legend has it that he was one of a race of Basque giants in the Pyrenees, who when they all noticed a glowing star over Jesus’ birthplace. All being Gentiles (non-Christian), they all tripped down the mountain trying to escape Christianisation, except for Olentzero who stayed to embrace it.
However, parts of the Olentzero tradition are likely to be pagan, surrounding rituals of ‘last meals’ around winter solstice. Indeed, another story has him as an abandoned new born in the woods who had gifts of kindness and strength given to him by a fairy, and as an adult carved toys to give to children. Celebrated on 24th December (Nochebuena in the rest of Spain) in most places, he began to take on gift-giving attributes from Spanish traditions of the Magi, as well as Santa Claus.
A nisse or tomte is a mythological creature from Nordic folklore today typically associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season. It is generally described as being no taller than 90 cm (35 in), having a long white beard, and wearing a conical or knit cap in red or some other bright colour. They often have an appearance somewhat similar to that of a garden gnome.
Gradually, commercialism has made him look more and more like the American Santa Claus, but the Swedish jultomte, the Norwegian julenisse, the Danish julemand and the Finnish joulupukki (see earlier) still has features and traditions that are rooted in the local culture. He doesn't live on the North Pole, but perhaps in a forest nearby; in Denmark he lives on Greenland; and in Finland he lives in Lapland. Additonally, he doesn’t come down the chimney at night, but through the front door, delivering the presents directly to the children, just like the Yule Goat did.
As well as gift giving from various figures, mischievous and jolly assistants are a reoccurring theme of Christmas tradition and Santa Claus traditions in many cultures. As well as the controversial ‘Zwarte Piet’ in the Netherlands, Iceland have the example of the Yule Lads or ‘jólasveinarnir’. Originating from Icelandic folklore, they became further established after the poetry of Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum, with thirteen prankster like characters, with each one visiting in turn in the thirteen days before Christmas. They all have their own characteristics - for example, ‘Pottaskfill’ (who arrives on 16th December and leaves on 29th) will steal left overs from pots, while ‘Hurðaskellir’ (arriving on 18th December) will slam doors, particularly at night!
They are said to be the sons of mountain trolls and their mother, Grýla is a large and scary with an appetite for flesh of mischievous children, and treks from the mountains to scare badly behaved children before Christmas. The more sadistic nature of this tradition has faded in recent times and the Yule Lads have taken on more benevolent nature to put rewards or punishments in children’s shoes in the thirteen nights before Yule, as well as physically taking on more Santa Claus like features.
Ded Moroz is a Slavic fictional character similar to that of Father Christmas, particularly in Russia and Belarus. The literal translation is "Old Man Frost", often translated as "Grandfather Frost". Ded Moroz brings presents to children and often delivers them in person on New Year's Eve, and is often seen to be taller and in more ornate robes than Santa Claus. Ded Moroz is accompanied by Snegurochka, his granddaughter and helper, who wears long silver-blue robes and a furry cap or a snowflake-like crown. She is a unique attribute of Ded Moroz, since similar characters in other cultures don't have a female companion. The character predates Christianity, as a Slavic ‘wizard of winter’, a Morozko (snow demon), but became transformed in the Orthodox tradition.
It is important to note though that Saint Nicholas is a separate but important Orthodox figure. Initially suppressed in Soviet era, he is now a popular figure still in Russia (even Vladimir Putin paying a visit in 2009), overcoming the western figure of Santa Claus in the 1990s. In the Mayor of Moscow declared Veliky Ustyug the home of Ded Moroz, with a Russian patriotic edge being added; indeed, according to Russian media, Ukraine attempted to replace Ded Moroz with Saint Nicholas in 2014. Interestingly, he remains popular in some non-Christian, predominantly Muslim societies, such as in Azerbaijan, as Şaxta Baba, or in Tatarstan, as Qış babay.
Père Noël, "Father Christmas", sometimes called Papa Noël ("Daddy Christmas"), is a legendary gift-bringer at Christmas in France and other French-speaking areas. According to tradition, on Christmas Eve children leave their shoes by the fireplace filled with carrots and treats for Père Noël's donkey, Gui (French for "Mistletoe") before they go to bed.
Père Noël takes the offerings and, if the child has been good, leaves presents in their place. Presents are traditionally small enough to fit in the shoes; candy, money or small toys. The Père Fouettard (French for Father Whipper) is a character who accompanies St. Nicholas in his rounds during St. Nicholas' Day (6 December) dispensing lumps of coal and/or floggings to the naughty children while St. Nick gives gifts to the well behaved.
Our journey now ends at the North Pole, the place which many people consider is Santa’s true home. However, as we have seen knowing where Santa Claus has come from is a complex story. The Western tradition of celebration in the mid-winter goes back before Christianity and beyond Christianisation and in many ways persists today through the legend of Santa Claus.
The traditions of a figure delivering gift, often based on ‘being naughty or nice’, with mischievous assistants are common, consistent traits in most Christmas traditions. Geographically and culturally, it is interesting how conflation and amalgamations of traditions form over time and distance, particularly with globalisation. What is also interesting is the differences which remain in the way legends around Christmas differentiate and often hark back to local cultural identity. Santa Claus is just one example of this.
Finally, whatever you may or may not believe surrounding Santa and Christmas, I hope you have a great Christmas/winter break and a Happy New Year!