When you think of Christmas, most think of Santa Claus. Although the legendary character Santa is part of Christmas, it hasn’t always been like that. In fact, Santa Claus is the product of the merging of European folklore, Christian, and pagan traditions. And even nowadays there is discussion whether he lives in Finland, Greenland, or somewhere on the Northpole. Yet to find out about the origins of Santa Claus, we must go much farther south, and much further back in time.
So when, and how, did Santa become integral to the Christmas celebrations? And how is he portrayed in different cultures?
History of Santa Claus
Although Santa Claus originated in the United States during the late 18th century, he didn’t suddenly appear. In fact, the jolly white-bearded old man that we have come to know Santa as was inspired by several European folklore characters that were sometimes centuries older.
One of these legendary characters is Sinterklaas and the eponymous celebration that is still ingrained in Dutch culture to this day. With the colonisation of the American continent, many Dutchmen reached the New World to build up a new life. These Dutchmen took with them their traditions, and one of the most iconic traditions in the Netherlands is Sinterklaas. That doesn’t mean Dutch people don’t celebrate Christmas, in fact, they celebrate both during December. It makes for a quite cosy, but expensive month.
So what are the origin stories of Sinterklaas, and how did he become the inspiration for Santa Claus? Well, Sinterklaas originated in Medieval Northern Europe. The celebrations were based on Saint Nicholas, a Greek Bishop of Myra, present-day Turkey, that mainly lived during the 4th century. The name day of Saint Nicholas was on December 6, with annual celebrations occurring on the evening of December 5, with family get-togethers and exchanges of gifts. Saint Nicholas was known for his, often anonymous, charity, such as giving money to the poor. Over time this changed to parents giving gifts to children that “had behaved well” throughout the year. After centuries of celebrating this tradition, many things changed and were added. Saint Nicholas now owns a horse, Amerigo, with whom he walks over roofs. Another is his arrival from Spain, instead of the actual place Saint Nicholas lived, namely Turkey. Yet the way he dressed and appeared remained mostly the same: to this day he still wears a red mitre, bishops robes and sports a long, white beard. So we can already distil some aspects which inspired modern-day Santa Claus.
Yet there was one problem with Saint Nicholas if you look at the trajectory of European history: he was a Catholic saint. During the reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholic celebrations were banned from large parts of northern Europe that embraced the reformation, including the Dutch Republic. Although Sinterklaas was, in theory, prohibited, private celebrations continued. A perfect example is Jan Steen’s late 17th-century painting ‘The Feast of Saint Nicholas’, clearly indicating at that time it was still celebrated in household circles. Yet sources also suggest that in Calvinist territories of the Holy Roman Empire, the celebrations were simply moved to Christmas Eve instead of December 5. As such, these celebrations slowly started to merge with Christmas celebrations already.
Subsequently, during the 17th century in England, the mythical figure of Father Christmas came to be. Just like Sinterklaas, Father Christmas was an old man with a long white beard, handing out presents to children that had behaved well. Yet in contrast to Sinterklaas, he resided on the North Pole, and wasn’t a stern old man but a jolly one. The next couple of decades this character spread to France as Père Noël and Spain as Papá Noel.
Having looked at the traditions of Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, it is relatively easy to see how Santa Claus came to be in the United States. When the migration of British and Dutch colonists gained traction to the New World, both traditions started to mix over centuries. The first official record of Santa Claus, which is the Americanization of Sinterklaas, was in December 1773 in the Rivington’s Gazette. This Santa Claus too delivered presents via chimneys, yet his outward appearance, a jolly old man in a red snowsuit, was based on Father Christmas.
And as time progressed, Santa Claus developed his own traditions. 1821 was the first time Santa Claus was described as having reindeer, in the anonymous poem “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight”. The anonymous publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, better known as “The Night Before Christmas” two years later did not just reiterate Santa having reindeer, but became the primary source of how Santa has been portrayed from then on up until today. Yet Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of Santa Claus, has only existed since 1939. Robert L. May wrote the story featuring Rudolph and his bright red nose. The 1949 song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit number 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart that same year. Until the 1980s it remained the best-selling record of all time.
It is theorised Santa’s eight flying reindeer were inspired by Norse mythology. Specifically, by Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. This too is a similarity with Sinterklaas and his horse, travelling over roofs from chimney to chimney. As for Odin himself, he is often portrayed with a long white beard, broad hat and red cloak.
Funnily enough it was the 1930s Coca Cola campaign that popularised Santa Claus even more. Up until then, Santa was still occasionally depicted as a normal-built man like Saint Nicholas. In 1863 the cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed him as a heavier man for the first time, in his drawing “A Christmas Furlough”. It resembled the English Father Christmas’s usual depiction, and it became rather popular. Yet Nast’s most famous drawing was his ‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ from Harper Weekly’s January 1881 edition. To this day this drawing resembles Santa Claus as we know him.
So, over time Santa was increasingly portrayed as a “chubby and plump” man, until the 1930s Coca Cola campaign cemented the image of a jolly, bearded, red-suit wearing older man. This drawing by Haddon Sundblom of 1931 was the first of many, and ever since Coca Cola and Santa Claus have been inextricably connected. Then again, Santa Claus is a very welcome icon for advertising. I honestly was very surprised to find out that Santa is a chain-smoker and there are more vintage advertising posters of Santa smoking a cigarette than I can even sum up. And I have to emphasise, just in case, these vintage posters are shown in a historical context and not as an advertisement.
Now, although I’ve mainly focused on Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, Santa Claus is similar to its Russian counterpart as well. Ded Moroz, as he’s called, is the Slavic Pagan version of Santa Claus and Father Christmas. His name translates to as much as Grandfather Frost. Instead of Christmas Eve of December 5, Ded Moroz brings presents to children on New Year’s Eve. Instead of a carriage with flying reindeer, Ded Moroz rides a troika, a traditional Russian sleigh with three horses. When he’s out delivering presents he’s accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka, or The Snow Maiden. In Denmark, Santa’s equivalent is the Julemand or Yule-man. He too has a large sack of presents and travels in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. His little helpers, Julenisser, are akin to elves that work in a workshop, crafting and packaging presents for children.
Finland has the claim that Santa lives in Finnish Lapland. According to newspaper articles from 1925, Santa’s reindeer couldn’t graze on the Northpole, so he moved to Lapland. Yet his name isn’t Santa Claus but Joulupukki. This name, just like his Danish equivalent, refers to the old Germanic Yulefest, a tradition that has slowly been overtaken by Christmas.
Italy must have one of the more curious traditions. Over there La Befana hands out presents to children on January 5. And, well, La Befana isn’t a jolly old man but a kind of benign witch. According to legend, she didn’t want to accompany the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus, as she was cleaning her house. She changed her mind too late, and to this day she hands out candy to children in an attempt to find the baby.