News Column

Santa Claus: The Man and the Myth Behind St. Nick

December 16, 2013

Tad Dickens, The Roanoke Times

santa claus
Santa Claus wasn't always a jolly old soul in a red suit (file photo)

That jolly old elf we've heard about for years -- you know, the chubby one with the red outfit who squeezes down countless chimneys -- has changed a lot over the years.

Santa Claus only picked up the style we know and love during the 1800s , but his influences and inspirations stretch back more than 1,500 years. That history has been filled with do-gooding, cultural synthesis and controversy across several cultures -- and lots of different outfits.

"The thing with Santa Claus -- particularly the sort of modern vision of Santa Claus and the job that he's responsible for during Christmas -- as age-old religious traditions go, that's a fairly modern one, although it certainly has some deep roots," said Jason Hawke , assistant professor of history and Latin at Roanoke College. "It really merges four major traditions."

Here is a look at the traditions that made Santa into today's reindeer-powered, sleigh-riding gift-giver.

Charitable saint

The first part of Santa Claus's name tracks closely with his first recognizable influence, St. Nicholas, a Greek born in 270 A.D., in what is now Turkey. Much of his life is a mystery, Hawke said, gleaned from a monk who wrote about him more than 400 years after he died.

Nicholas of Bari, who grew up to be Bishop of Myra, in Turkey, lost his parents when he was young, but they left him wealthy. Nicholas, a devout Christian like his parents, determined to do good with his inheritance, Hawke said.

The best-known stories about Nicholas involve him saving children. During a famine, a butcher in Myra lured three small children to his shop, where he killed them with a plan to chop them up and sell the meat. Nicholas discovered the plan and resurrected the children. This act helped elevate him to sainthood, Hawke said.

Nicholas also used his money to save young girls from a life of prostitution. Their father could not afford their marriage dowry, but Nicholas on three occasions secretly got purses full of gold into the family's home, providing each girl a dowry.

"The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry," according to, the website of the Michigan-based St. Nicholas Center. "This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. ... And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver."

Some believed that if he couldn't get a gift through a window, he would drop it down the chimney, Hawke said.

Before he died in 343, Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned on Roman Emperor Diocletian's orders.

"He spent half his life during a period in which Christianity was not legal in the Roman world," Hawke said. "During the great persecution, in the early 4th century, he was imprisoned and tortured, but survived it and ultimately went on to become an important figure at the first ecumenical council of the church, at Nycea in 325, presided over by the Emperor Constantine," the first openly Christian Roman emperor.

Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death, remains the Feast Day of St. Nicholas.

Odin and Sleipnir

Many people don't realize what a big influence the Norse god Odin had on our Santa. But thanks to the Pagan Germanic cultures and their mid-winter Yule celebration, Santa had the beginnings of a livestock ride.

Odin was a key member of the Norse pantheon, the ruler of Valhalla, creator of the sun and moon, co-creator of humans, father of the man-god Thor and collector of dead war heroes, among other supernatural pursuits, according to Bullfinch's "Mythology."

"As those populations slowly Christianized, from the 4th to the 9th centuries A.D., they kept many of the Yule traditions, which were simply co-opted into the Christian faith," Hawke said. "Within those traditions, one of the key figures was the god Odin, who among other things was thought to lead during Yule the wild hunt across the sky.

"And now it starts to really get weird. He did this on his 8-footed gray steed named Sleipnir . One part of the tradition is that he was thought to bring gifts, and some scholars have suggested ... he brought gifts from the North."

Who's been naughty?

In the Netherlands, they call Saint Nicholas Sinterklaas, but Klaas' vibe is a mixture of Nicholas and Odin -- and he knows what you've been up to.

"This is where the two traditions really begin to merge and have an important impact upon our own sort of North American conceptions and celebrations of Santa Claus," Hawke said.

About a third of the Dutch population exchanges gifts, particularly among children, on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas instead of Christmas.

"So this idea of giving gifts to children in association with Sinterklaas begins in that Dutch tradition," Hawke said. "And it also appears to be a Dutch tradition going back into the late middle ages or the early modern period that these children had their names written in the book of Saint Nicholas based on their behavior."

So Sinterklaas knows who is naughty and who is nice, and he has a familiar look, too. Klaas has the traditional white garb of the bishop, Hawke said, but with a red mitre for headgear and a red cape around his shoulders. Like Odin, this version of St. Nick has a long white beard and rides a gray horse.

"These seem to be echoes back to Odin, who was typically thought of as looking that way," Hawke said.

Partying Father

Father Christmas, who grew out of a carol from about the 15th century, was associated with English feasting and drinking at the holiday season. But unlike the older Claus figures, this papa polarized people during the Puritan revolts of the 16th century.

"Royalists tended to continue to favor the celebration of Christmas and the idea of Father Christmas as sort of overlooking their seasonal revels, whereas, of course, the Puritans had, shall we say, a somewhat dimmer view of these things," Hawke said, chuckling.

A 17th-century backlash against the Puritans brought out depictions of Father Christmas as a jovial fellow. Josiah King , a pamphleteer of the time, described Father Christmas with "cherry cheeks through thin, milk-white locks." His jacket was green or red, and fur-lined.

This father remained associated with feasting and hospitality among adults -- and with generosity to the poor -- until about the Victorian era. Then, the tradition merged with the gift-giving of old Saint Nick, "sort of getting away from the drunken revelry of adults and making it about the kids," Hawke said.

New world, new figure

All four versions of this increasingly jolly elf began to synthesize in 1773, via New York's large Dutch population. The name Santa Claus rose among them, clearly a take on the old country's Sinterklaas.

But the name grew popular beyond that group with "A History of New York," which Washington Irving wrote in 1809 under the pen name Diedrich Knickerbocker . Irving, lampooning Dutch culture in the city, took Santa Claus out of bishop's robes and dressed him more like Father Christmas.

"But Washington Irving also depicts him as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe and a green winter coat," Hawke said.

One of Irving's contemporaries was Clement Moore, who in 1822 wrote "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," a poem which ultimately became known as "'Twas The Night Before Christmas."

Moore's poem includes stockings by the chimney, flying reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys and a chubby elf sooted up from squeezing down the chimney. The poet refers to him as "little" at least three times. How else is he going to get down the chimney?

Political cartoon pioneer Thomas Nast updated the little fellow, growing the elf to human size.

"So once you've turned him into the corpulent Santa of Thomas Nast, this becomes a little bit more of a logistical problem, but it's the magic of Christmas," Hawke said.

Nast's Claus cartoons, drawn for Harper's Weekly, began in January 1863, with Santa giving Christmas gifts to Union soldiers at a war camp.

The website describes a key part of the scene: "Santa is holding a dancing puppet of [Confederate president] Jefferson Davis. ... Even more interesting, Davis appears to have the string tied around his neck, so Santa appears to be lynching Jefferson Davis! This is a classic Thomas Nast illustration."

Nast went on to draw more than 30 versions of Claus for Harper's Weekly through 1886, according to the New York Times. The German native did 76 total, according to

Ultimately, Nast's work cemented Santa's image, Hawke said.

A legacy of gifts

The red-suited guy coming down your chimney is more a product of folklore than history, so it is nearly impossible to draw a perfectly accurate picture of Santa's evolution. Folklore wasn't always part of a historian's purview, so drawing a direct line from one Clausian manifestation to another didn't make it into the history books.

"One of the constructive ways to think about it is that this notion of gift-giving at the winter solstice is also something that even the ancient Romans did," Hawke said. "The December festival, the Saturnalia, was a time when Romans would exchange gifts with one another. There's something about that that seems to be sort of embedded, deeply perhaps, in our -- for lack of a better phrase -- Western culture.

"So I think it really becomes an issue not so much about synthesizing a new tradition but rather emphasizing certain elements of the old."

And that's part of how a mythic figure can emerge from the American melting pot.


(c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.)

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Original headline: Santa Claus: The man behind the merry myth

Source: (c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.)

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