Santa Claus is a familiar figure to children and adults across the world; a “jolly old elf” who rides through the night sky on a sleigh, bringing presents to all the good boys and girls. But who is Santa Claus, really? Where the does the legend come from?
The English name “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas, in turn, is derived from the Dutch translation of “Saint Nicholas.”
The real-life St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived in what is now Turkey. He was known for giving giving gifts to the poor and protecting children. In fact, one story has him resurrecting children whom a psychopathic local butcher had made into meat pies, like an ancient version of Sweeney Todd.
But what is it with him and the chimney? Apparently, one of St. Nicholas’ many good deeds involved paying the dowries for three poor girls so that they wouldn’t have to turn to prostitution to support themselves. He wanted to make this gift anonymously, but when it came time to deliver the third purse the girls’ father was waiting up for him. So, down the chimney it went, where it was caught by a pair of stockings that the girl had hung up to dry.
Those of us who are used to the unfailingly cheerful modern version of Santa might also be surprised to learn that he wasn’t always so full of good cheer. In fact, in Austria and Bavaria he was supposedly accompanied by a rather unpleasant character called the Krampus. The Krampus looks like a rabid goat, and comes after the children on St. Nick’s “naughty” list. Sometimes, he merely delivers their families a bundle of switches to beat them with. Other times, he eats them. It’s still traditional in this region for young men to dress up like the Krampus and run around frightening the little ones before St. Nicholas’ feast day. If you see a Krampus, you are traditionally obliged to give it some schnapps, which seems like the sensible thing to do.
While the modern-day Santa Claus may have been derived from the legends of St. Nicholas, the two are treated as separate characters in many countries, with the saint delivering presents on his feast day and Santa Claus delivering a smaller load of goodies on Christmas Eve.
Santa as we know him today is an amalgam of St. Nicholas, the ancient Norse God Odin, and the old English character of Father Christmas. Like Odin, he has a long flowing beard and is capable of flying through sky at night. Father Christmas was created to represent the “spirit of Christmas,” defending the holiday from English Puritans who thought that drinking and merriment was an ungodly way to celebrate. From Father Christmas, Santa gets his jolly demeanour (and probably also his rosy cheeks and nose.)
Are you ready for Santa Claus this year?