Jolly Old St. Nick (Spoilers!)

Who was Santa Claus?

Father Christmas ~ Saint Nick ~ Kris Kringle ~ SinterKlaas…He is known by so many different names, bringing gifts to good children all over the world on the night before Christmas.

Our modern depiction of Santa – the fat, jolly, white-bearded man in his red suit and black belt and boots – has his roots in a 3rd century monk, Saint Nicholas. Born in Myra in what is now modern day Turkey, he was famous for his piety and generosity. Legend has it that he gave away all his wealth and traveled far and wide helping the sick and poor. As the story of Saint Nicholas spread throughout the world, his appearance would take on different characteristics in various parts of the world.

In Europe today, St. Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. On the night before, St. Nicholas leaves small presents in the boots of “good” children, while the larger presents are delivered on Christmas eve.

In the Netherlands, the feast of Sinterklaas traditionally kicks off two weeks before December 6. The Dutch exported this tradition when they settled in New Amsterdam, now known as New York.

Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, "Merry Old Santa Claus", from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly
Thomas Nast‘s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly

In 1881, political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, created the first image of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly, giving us the portly, jolly image in a red suit similar to what we expect today. It was based on a poem written 60 years previously by Episcopalian minister, Clement Clark Moore. The poem, “An Account of a Visit From Saint. Nicholas” was written for his three daughters. Today, it is more popularly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

“His eyes–how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.”

Nast also invented Santa’s suit, his workshop and elves, his home in the North Pole, and even Mrs. Claus by way of his artwork.

And what of flying reindeer and chimneys?

While Moore’s poem does mention all eight reindeer by name for the first time, reindeer had been a way of life for the indigenous peoples of northern Europe for thousands of years. These hardy animals are often used in pulling sleighs and sleds of the Sami people (also known as Laplanders).

For the idea of flying reindeer, we must revisit the folklore ancestors of northern Europe. The Norse god, Odin, would go on his mid-winter rides through the sky on his eight-footed horse, delivering gifts to his people, and has often been credited with being the origin of Santa’s sleigh-rides.

Santa coming down the chimney was popularized by Moore’s poem:

“As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.”

Odin was also said to enter children’s houses through the chimney on winter solstice to deliver gifts. Also, in Italian folklore, an old woman named Befana enters the homes of children through the chimney on the eve of Epiphany (January 5) to deliver presents. La Befana, who carries a sack full of candy (like any grandmother), comes with her own set of Christmas stories, too.

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