Archive for December, 2012

The History of Santa Claus: Father Christmas & the Birth of the Modern Santa

posted by Karen Hood
Thursday, December 20, 2012

Author: Douglas Rahden
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In our previous articles, we have explored how the historical figure of St. Nicholas and the Germanic and Dutch folklore traditions have contributed to the history of Santa Claus. In our final article, we’ll take a look at the rise of the modern Santa Claus figure as influenced by the British portrayal of Father Christmas.

Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain. Pictures of him from that era portray him as a large, cheerful—even jolly—bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe. He personified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and was reflected as the “Ghost of Christmas Present”, in A Christmas Carol, a great genial man who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.

It was in the great melting pot of America that the modern figure of Santa Claus was truly born. Immigrants from the Netherlands, Germany, Scandanavia, and France brought the folklore surrounding St Nicholas and Sinterklaas with them, where these traditions merged with the British character Father Christmas to create the character known to Britons and Americans as Santa Claus.

The 19th century saw further changes to the portrayal of Santa Claus. In 1822 Clement C. Moore composed the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, published as The Night Before Christmas as a gift for his children. Until Moore’s famous poem, much of the folklore surrounding Santa had not been solidified, but this established Santa as a merry, chubby, white-bearded man in a red suit whose sleigh was pulled by reindeer, and who entered by the chimney to leave presents in the children’s stockings.

However, A Visit from Saint Nicholas specifies Santa as “a right jolly old elf,” and he was frequently portrayed as an elf until American cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted Santa Claus in his modern form in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation. A color collection of Nast’s pictures, published in 1869, had a poem also titled “Santa Claus and His Works” by George P. Webster, who wrote that Santa Claus’s home was “near the North Pole, in the ice and snow”.

The history of Santa Claus is a long one, full of many transformations and tidbits gleaned from various cultures. But as long as there has been some type of Santa figure, whether it be Odin or St. Nicholas or Father Christmas, he has been the epitome of this season, a generous and good-hearted man.

The History of Santa Claus: Germanic & Dutch Traditions

posted by Karen Hood
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Author: Erik Bro
Source: Dutch Wikipedia

In our previous article, we explored how the historical figure St. Nicholas became the basis for Santa Claus. However, Santa’s story is far from over. Many other cultures and traditions contributed to folklore surrounding Santa Claus.

Numerous parallels have been drawn between Santa Claus and the Norse God Odin. During the Germanic holiday of Yule, which was celebrated at the same time of year as Christmas, Odin would lead a great hunting party through the sky. Odin is described as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances. According to some traditions, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Sleipnir. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy. This practice still survives in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of France, although it is now associated with Saint Nicholas rather than Odin. In other countries, this tradition has been replaced by the hanging of stockings by the chimney.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) is an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop’s outfit and carries a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top. The “naughty or nice” tradition stems from this Dutch figure. Sinterklaas keeps notes in the Book of Saint Nicholas about the behavior of each child and distributes presents to those who have been good, while the naughty children risk being caught by his aides, who will switch them with willow canes. Like Odin, Sinterklaas also rides a flying horse over the rooftops and delivers gifts through the chimney.

In our next article, we will take a look at Father Christmas and the development of the modern British and American figure of Santa Claus that is so familiar today.

The History of Santa Claus: Saint Nicholas

posted by Karen Hood
Friday, December 14, 2012

Many people already know that the origins of Santa Claus date back to Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (in present day Turkey); and that Clement C. Moore’s famous poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” has contributed significantly to the modern view of Santa as a jolly, rotund man with a white beard and red suit. However, the traditions surrounding Santa Claus extend much further than most people realize, echoing folklore that stems from Germanic, Dutch, Scandanavian, and British stories.

St. Nicholas was a holy man known for his generosity in giving gifts to poor and his love of children. After his death in 340 AD, he became an extremely popular saint throughout Europe, and is claimed in various countries as the patron saint of sailors, children, and travelers. Thousands of churches across Europe were dedicated to him and an official church holiday was created in his honor. In medieval times nuns used the night of December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas, to deposit baskets of food and clothes anonymously at the doorsteps of the needy. Also on December 6, sailors would descend to the harbor towns to participate in a church celebration for their patron saint. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy gifts for their loved ones and children. While the real gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, courtesy of Saint Nicholas.

After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas dwindled, but the legend was kept alive in Holland where the Dutch spelling of his name Sint Nikolaas was eventually transformed to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century, where the name Sinterklaas was Anglicized into Santa Claus.

However, this is not the end of Santa Claus’s story! In our next article, we will explore the influence of Germanic and Scandanavian folklore on the tradition of Santa Claus!