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Santa Claus is Coming to Town!

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to sit down with Santa Claus and ask him a few questions.( Being the Christmas season, the questions were all in the spirit rather than an expose on Santa’s past. Like Gandalf of Lord of the Rings fame, Santa has gone by many names during his long life. Artistically, the popular image of Santa today is thanks to the Coca Cola company who made Santa’s jolly face well known. But who is this international man of mystery? Where did Santa come from? Let’s hitch up the reindeer and take an evening flight into the history of Santa Claus.

Jolly Saint Nicholas

The earliest iteration of Santa was in the 4th century. Saint Nicholas was the bishop in the village of Myra is what is now modern-day Turkey. He was canonized and quickly became one of the most popular saints in Christianity. According to folklore, he was known for his kindness and generosity, especially toward children. As mentioned in our Krampus blog, the feast day for Saint Nicholas is around December 6th (the day Saint Nicholas died). On this day parents would leave gifts for their children and children believed they were left by Saint Nicholas who was well known for his generosity and charity.

Now Saint Nicholas looked quite different from our modern icons of Santa. First, he is quite thin rather than robust as Santa. Additionally, he dresses in the traditional costume of a Catholic Bishop rather than a red suit trimmed in fur. The Dutch version of Saint Nicholas depicts him riding a donkey rather than in a sleigh with reindeer. Further, Dutch children would leave straw in their clogs for the donkey to eat and in the morning, the straw would be gone, and gifts left in its place. It is through the Dutch translation of Saint Nicholas that the name Santa Claus is derived. The Dutch called Saint Nicholas Sinterklaas.

Odin at Yule

Long before Christianization, the Germanic people of Europe and Scandinavia, celebrated Yule during Mid-winter. Contrary to modern bright lights and colorful festivities, this was time when ghosts and other o supernatural phenomena were most likely to occur. One such occurrence was the Wild Hunt. Odin led the Wild Hunt from the back of his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. It is theorized that Sleipnir is the inspiration behind Santa’s eight reindeer today. The folklore of the Wild Hunt differs through the Germanic regions. In essence it is a ghostly hunt led by Odin during the Yuletide season. Galloping hooves, barking dogs, and shouting men can be heard during the night. Folklorist, Margaret Baker, points out that the legends of Santa and Father Christmas both are derived from that of Odin.

Father Christmas

The British Father Christmas is depicted as wearing green or red robes trimmed in fur. His legend dates back to the time of Henry VIII in the 16th century. He is cheerful during Christmas and emanates peace, joy and good will. Additionally, like Bacchus of Roman lore, he also brings food and wine. He was the template for the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. At this time, England was no longer observing the feast day of Saint Nicholas. To make up for this, the celebration of Father Christmas was moved to Christmas day, December 25th, to coincide with Christmas. On a side note, Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice on December 25th. In the 3rd century, long before the distinction between Catholic and protestant, there was only “The Church”. December 25, 336 marks the first official Christmas celebration held in Rome to coincide with the Winter Solstice celebration. Consider it a marriage of traditions.

Santa Claussville, N.P.

Between 1863 and 1886 a man named Thomas Nast submitted thirty-three Christmas drawings to Harper’s Weekly Magazine featuring the home of Santa. During this time, the public’s imagination was captured by widely publicized expeditions to the Arctic. Unsurprisingly, this caused Mr. Nast to envision Santa’s abode as being in the mysterious and mythical North Pole. Further, according to the story, The Night Before Christmas (1823), Santa used reindeer as a mode of transportation and reindeer lived in the Arctic. Lastly, snow is present year-round in the Arctic and snow represents Christmas. It seems only logical that Santa would live in the North Pole.

Santa Enjoys a Coca Cola

Up until 1931, Santa was still depicted in numerous ways from the jolly Father Christmas to the pious Saint Nicholas and everything in between. Enter Haddon Sundblom. In 1931 he was commissioned by the Coca Cola Company to paint Santa for Christmas advertisements. These depictions show a warm happy man with rosy cheeks, twinkling eyes, and a few laugh lines to boot. Like Thomas Nast, Sundblom drew inspiration from the poem Twas the Night Before Christmas. These ads featured regularly in popular magazines and publications such as the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal for the next 33 years thus cementing his imagery in the imaginations of people everywhere.

Thanks for reading! From our home to yours, may you have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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