Hello again readers and students of Areteem Institute, I saved the best for last in this holiday Christmas history blog: Santa!
Santa Claus is believed to have been inspired by the real St. Nicholas who came from Myra, Lycia (now part of modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century CE. St. Nicholas came from a wealthy family and was a very religious man even at a young age, known for giving charitable gifts to the poor. He pursued the life of a clergyman and eventually became a bishop.
There are many legends that surround this historic figure. One claims that he helped three young girls without dowries one night by tossing gold in their stockings drying by the fire while the family was asleep, thus helping them to increase their chances of getting married. This is said to be the origin of hanging stockings near a chimney and why oranges were once put in stockings as symbols of the gold given by St. Nicholas. When he was finally canonized as a saint he became one of the most revered figures of his time and became a patron to children and sailors among many others.
The veneration towards St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe where many countries such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands still celebrate his feast day on December 6th when men dressed like him in red bishop robes (like the large picture above) go around their neighboring towns distributing gifts. He is sometimes accompanied by a demonic figure known by many names such as Black Peter, Belsnickel or Krampus who scares bad children with his chains, birch rods and utterly frightening appearance (please refer to the picture below of St. Nicholas and Krampus with the overly excited naughty child stuffed in the basket!).
With the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic St. Nicholas gave way to the figure of the Christ Child or Christkind, an angelic being who also distributed gifts to good children whose name is given to the famous “Christkindl” markets selling food, ornaments and wonderful seasonal fare all December long throughout Germany and even in parts of the United States. Later on when the Christkind traditions made it to the New World, his German name became Americanized into Kris Kringle which has now become synonymous with Santa Claus. Santa Claus/St. Nicholas also has many gift-giving cousins around the world at Christmas time from the Italian witch La Befana to the Three Wise Men who come on January 6th in Spain. (Check out the list of books at the end of the blog to read more about these elusive figures!)
Long story short, Santa Claus has also amalgamated elements from the Norse god Odin who was known to fly at night on his eight-legged horse in the “Wild Hunt” with fellow spirits and gods to retrieve souls of the living. The “Wild Hunt” was most visible around wintertime throughout northern European countries with other colorful characters leading the way such as among others, King Arthur and Herne the Hunter in England and goddess figures like Mother or Frau Holle in Germany. The concept of Santa pulling a sleigh with eight reindeer may have come from this widespread belief in the “Wild Hunt”.
Santa Claus’ name derives from his Dutch incarnation as Sinterklaas, which is in fact a Dutch interpretation of the name “Saint Nicholas” and his jovial appearance has been equated with the British Father Christmas who makes an appearance as the green-robed Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol”. In England, Father Christmas was known under the guises of “Sir Christmas” or “Lord Christmas” before the 18th century as personifications of the Christmas season. Both the British and Dutch variations of Santa Claus eventually were brought to America where his appearance slowly took on the image we recognize today.
In 1823 the American author Clement C. Moore anonymously published his poem entitled “A Visit From St. Nicholas” which we lovingly know today as “The Night Before Christmas”. The short poem described St. Nicholas as a jolly elf-like figure associating him with the distribution of gifts and a flying sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, whose names have also become famous as a result (Rudolph came much later in 1939 as a promotional story for Montgomery Ward!).
For visuals, we have political cartoonist Thomas Nast with his series of 19th century drawings of Santa Claus as well as the proliferation of his image on 20th century Christmas Coca Cola advertisements. Over the past century he acquired his North Pole home and workshop, his company of elf workers (descendants of Yuletide Scandinavian household and nature spirits known as nisse and tomte, gift givers of Norway and Sweden in their own right), his wife Mrs. Claus and his annual magical journey on Christmas Eve through children’s literature, pictures, comic strips, songs, TV shows and films.
From the 20th century to our time now, the celebration of Christmas has expanded beyond America, England and Europe to many countries and continents around the world. The past hundred years have seen a plethora of songs and movies that have honored the religious side of Jesus’ birth and overall winter festivities, showing the powerful impact that Christmas has had on us. Every year we can listen to radio stations playing songs like “A Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”. Children (and grown-ups too!) can also enjoy watching the Peanuts gang in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as well as the famous Rankin/Bass cartoons and stop-motion films such as “Frosty the Snowman”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (all based on the lyrics of Christmas songs!). And families will take comfort in watching what we consider Christmas movie “classics” such as “White Christmas” from 1954, “It’s a Wonderful Life” from 1946 and “A Miracle on 34th Street” from 1947. And did you know that even some Christmas songs were created by Hollywood such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sung by Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis” from 1944!
And so on a happy note, we have arrived at journey’s end in our own time! As you share a meal together this holiday season like our ancient ancestors did, think about the Winter Solstice on December 21st and trim the house with evergreens to welcome winter spirits. You can wait for Santa Claus (aka St. Nicholas) or maybe you might see the Wild Hunt fly on by (if you are lucky). See Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” ballet for the umpteenth time, go Christmas “caroling” with your friends like the British waits long ago, watch a choir of singers, go to a church service or enjoy seeing “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (the cartoon or the live-action movie) as well as one of many film versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at home.
A Merry Christmas, a Happy Yule, Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice and more to all, and to all a good night!
Historical and Folklore Reading:
“Ceremonies of the Seasons” by Jennifer Cole
“Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations” by Madeleine Pelner Cosman
“The Christmas Almanac” by Natasha Tabori Fried
“The Medieval Christmas” by Sophie Jackson
“Christmas Past” by Barbara Kissinger
“The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas” by John Matthews
“A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition” by Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez
“Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth” by Dorothy Morrison
“Pagan Book of Days” by Nigel Pennick
“The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year” by Linda Raedisch
“Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide” by Christian Ratsch
“Holidays and Celebrations in Colonial America” by Russell Roberts
“The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” by L. Frank Baum
“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens
“The Autobiography of Santa Claus” by Jeff Guinn
“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman (The original story behind the ballet)
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and other Stories from the Sketch Book” by Washington Irving and Wayne Franklin (look for the five Old Christmas stories contained within)
More Websites to Check Out Beyond the Ones Linked in the Blog!
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