This is the third in a 3 part series. Part 1: Pagan origins of Christmas, Part 2: Christian origins of Christmas, and Part 3: Santa Claus and his Ilk.
In part 1, I discussed the pagan origins of Christmas. In part 2, we discussed the practices of Christmas that were Christian in origin. In this piece, we’ll talk about the Characters of Christmas, particularly Santa, but with notable others as well.
Santa Claus has, for better or worse (who are we kidding, its worse), become ubiquitous with Christmas. It is usually the first image that pops into little heads when the C-word is mentioned. But from whence did he come? So many names for him, too: Saint Nicolas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, among others. So what is the origin of the fat one? Let’s start at the beginning.
Yes, there was in fact, a real person named Saint Nicolas. He was born in 270 CE, and died in 343 CE. He was the bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey. He was very devout, even at an early age, and after his parents died while he was young, he was tutored in bishoprickery by his uncle, and soon was ordained. He was at the council of Nicea, and was among the signers of the titular creed.
He was also known as Nicolas the wonderworker, on account of the miracles he was said to have done, but probably more well known for using his considerable wealth (which he inherited) to help those less fortunate. In the most popular story, Saint Nicolas heard of a poor man being unable to provide dowry for his daughters, and feared them becoming prostitutes. So Nicolas, in secret, provided the money for the dowries in three separate purses for the girls.
Now, here is where the magic starts to kick in. St. Nick became something of a church rock star. And often, when this happened, there came followers, who wished, not to follow St. Nicolas, as it were, but were so inspired by him, that they desired to follow God in the same way that St. Nicolas did. So a “cult” of St. Nick began. Nicolas, after his death, became quite popular as the patron saint of navigation. Around the Mediterranean this was quite important. So in the Eastern part of Christendom, Nicolas was gathering quite a following. However, turkey fell to the Turks in the 11th century, and in 1087, Nicolas’ bones were moved to the Western part of the empire, where, between the Pope’s to-do made about the bones, and the popular feast days associated with him, Nicolas’ cult exploded in popularity, rivaling that of even the blessed Mother Mary. This cult (in this sense, simply an atypical way of practicing religion) began spreading quite far across Christendom and in the medieval period, spread across Northern Europe quite fast.
Once there, the cult and myths of Nicolas crashed into more local and pagan expressions of culture and myth. Around the same general times of Nicolas’ feast days, the great hunt of the God Odin was held. Odin was said to ride in his chariot, pulled by his 8-legged horse, Sleipnir. Often, children would fill their boots with gifts for Sleipnir, usually carrots, straw, and sugar, and in return, Odin would leave gifts or candy in the boot. As Christendom’s influence became dominant, the practices that once accompanied the veneration of Odin were still celebrated, but the attributes of Odin were shifted onto St. Nicolas in order to make his cult more popular and to give a reason for Christians to keep traditions alive and still remain faithful to their religion.
So it was that St. Nicolas gained a nordic look, a white beard, a sleigh, and a penchant for putting goodies in stockings. Around this time, his name became skandinavian-ized to Sinterklaas. Odin’s raven helpers became Sinterklaas’ various helpers and Odin’s spear became Sinterklaas’ staff.
Interestingly, Woden, the counterpart of Odin in many other areas of northern Europe, did not merge with St. Nicolas, but a similar process occurred. While Woden’s influence waned in places like England, a new character, Father Christmas, was created. Father Christmas appeared as a tall man, usually very old. He usually wore green suit trimmed with fur and dark boots. He often had a large sack with him, and many times had a beard, with or without mustache.
This Father Christmas appears in Dickens’ novel as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and also in Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
To various degrees, when the Father Christmas myths and the Sinterklaas myths made their way to America, the stories began to merge. In 1773, Sinterklaas was first Americanized into Santa Claus, and as a parody of Dutch culture of the time, was made to look stout instead of lean. In 1821, a poem called Santeclaus described this chap as having a sleigh with reindeer. It is interesting to note that Santa had 8 original reindeer to pull his sleigh and Odin had a horse with 8 legs to pull his. In 1823, various myths were cemented in the poem “Night Before Christmas.”
Santa began landing on roofs and using chimneys. Toys now figured prominently. St. Nick is called “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”, while “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer” might indicate that he was still considered short. The reindeer recieved names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (meaning thunder and lightning, were likely the common names for Thor’s chariot goats in Norse mythology, but later changed to Donner and Blitzen).
Thomas Nast, in the 1860’s, popularized and/or created a number of other Santa Claus myths with his cartoons. From Nast, Santa gained his home at the north pole, and has Santa as a large, fat guy. In one cartoon, Santa is even seen wearing an American flag. No comment.
While Coca-Cola was not the first company to feature Santa Claus in advertisement, they were the ones that so popularized the red and white fur suit that all other dresses for Santa virtually disappeared in the 20th Century.
Mrs. Santa Claus first appeared in 1849, in “A Christmas Legend,” a short story. She gained a more popular appearance in the poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” in 1889, where she nags Santa into letting her ride with him on the sleigh one year. Interestingly enough, one of her earliest appearances gives her first name as “Layla.”
Krampus is a demon-looking character who makes appearances during Advent, sometimes with, sometimes before Sinterklaas. He is usually black or brown, with cloven hoofs and large horns. He either carries, or is bound with, large chains, and usually carries ruten, which are sticks to beat children with. Krampus likely predates Christian celebrations in northern Europe, but once the cult of St. Nicolas merged with customs, the chains began to appear and symbolized St. Nicolas defeating and binding Krampus. Traditionally, Krampus accompanies Sinterklaas and while Sinterklaas gives toys to good children, Krapmus either beats them with the ruten, or stuffs them in either a bag or tub which is on his back to take the children to drown them, eat them, or carry them to hell. Most of Krampus’ legend is from the Alpine Countries of Europe.
Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet, is another helper of Sinterklaas. This time, from the Netherlands and Belgian traditions. Black Peter likely morphed from the black Raven companions of Odin and from myths of elves from northern Europe. These elves were not the short, inventive elves that we think of in Santa’s workshop today (probably better labeled as gnomes). These elves were more akin to Legolas in the Lord of the Rings. And there were evil, or dark, elves present in those mythologies as well. On of these, in the same tradition as the captured Krampus, was Black Peter. An evil being, he was defeated by Sinterklaas, and forced to help in his duties. In most stories, Black Peter, like Krampus, carries a sack and a roe (a group of switches akin to the ruten) to punish children who were bad. Over time, the “black” in Black Peter began to take on more of a realistic meaning and those who dressed up as Black Peter in plays began portraying him, not as an elf, but rather as a”moor.” This tradition carries on to today, where Black Peter can be seen being portrayed in black face (judge the taste with which this is done in for yourself) at some Christmas parades.
Knecht Ruprecht is a character who helped Sinterklaas, much like Krampus and Black Peter, but is human, rather than creature. He dresses in brown, dirty robes or straw, and gives bad children swats, or gives their parents sticks to beat their kids. He is also known simply to give bad gifts. He is also known as Farmhand Rupert, and often carries a bag of ashes with him to hit children who don’t pray. Interestingly, Ruprecht is a common name of a devil in many mythologies from Germany, where Knecht Ruprecht originates, so perhaps there is a connection to Krapus and Black Peter in Ruprecht’s original form, but that is my speculation.
As early as 1850, elves have been depicted as helpers of Santa Claus. Of course, these smaller, kinder, and more creative elves were sanitized and sweet versions of the helpers that came from across the Atlantic, but is seems that Americans had no stomach for the more evil appearing helpers, especially with the Calvinistic assaults on Christmas celebrations common in American history. So the elves continued to evolve with each new appearance gaining hats, then appearing all green, then depicted, alongside developments in Santa myths, in workshops, etc… I still advocate that these are gnomes, not elves, but I digress…
Now you know, and knowing is half the battle. I think the point of all this, is that… we should be honest with our kids about Santa Claus. Unless of course, you take the good with the bad and tell them about Santa’s helpers, too….