The History of Santa Claus

Posted by By Limoge at 13 December, at 07 : 41 AM Print

“HE sees you when you’re sleeping, HE knows when you’re awake…HE knows if you’ve been bad or good…” HE is the man of the hour, the guy that kids of all ages have been waiting for all year long…HE is Santa Claus! Think you know all there is to know about the man?  If not, read on and find out some pretty amazing facts about the guy known as St. Nick, Father Christmas, Pere Noel…   (P.S. If you don’t read on, HE might just leave you a stocking full of coal…just sayin’…)

‘Twas fourth century Greece where the story of Saint Nicholas was born. Saint Nicholas of Myra (which is now part of Turkey),  is the primary inspiration for the man who would come to be known as Santa Claus.  Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor and was a religious man who devoted his entire life to Christianity.

As a matter of fact, in parts of Europe, St. Nicholas is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.  He was later claimed as a patron saint by many diverse groups, from archers, sailors and children to pawnbrokers.  He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.

Centuries later, numerous parallels have been drawn between the man known as Santa Claus and the figure of Odin, a major god among the Germanic people.  These include the beard, hat, and the cloth bag held by servants, which according to folklore, rather than carrying toys, was used to capture naughty children.

Odin was sometimes recorded as the native Germanic holiday of Yule, leading a great hunting party through the sky. Several books describe Odin as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus’ reindeer. Children were described as placing their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat.

Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy.  This practice survived in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and can be still seen in the modern practice of the hanging of stockings at the chimney in some homes. This practice in turn came to the United States through the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam prior to the British seizure in the 17th century, and evolved into the hanging of socks or stockings at the fireplace.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicolas, (“Sinterklaas”, often called “De Goede Sint” — “The Good Saint”) is aided by helpers commonly known as ” Zwarte Piet” (“Black Peter”) in Dutch or “Pere Fouettard” in French. There are various explanations of the origins of the helpers. The oldest explanation is that the helpers symbolize the two ravens Hugin and Munin who informed Odin on what was going on in the world.

In later stories the helper depicts the defeated devil. Another, more modern story is that Saint Nicolas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called ‘Piter’ (from Saint Peter) from a Myra market, and the boy was so grateful he decided to stay with Saint Nicolas as a helper.

Pre-modern representations of St. Nicholas and Sinterklaas eventually merged with the British character Father Christmas. Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain and pictures of him survive from that era, portraying him as a jolly well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe.

He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and was reflected as the “Ghost of Christmas Present” in Charles Dickens’ festive classic , A Christmas Carol.

In the British colonies of North America and later the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. For example, in Washington Irving’s History of New York, (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into “Santa Claus” (a name first used in the American press in 1773) but lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat.

The modern ideas of Santa Claus became legend however, after the publication of the poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas (better known today as The Night Before Christmas) written by Clement Clarke Moore and published in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823 . Many of his modern attributes are established in this poem, such as riding in a sleigh that lands on the roof, entering through the chimney, and having a bag full of toys.

St. Nick is described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”. The reindeer were also named: “Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen, On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem” (Dunder and Blixem was later changed to Donner and Blitzen).

As years passed, Santa Claus evolved in popular culture into a large, heavyset person. One of the first artists to define Santa Claus’s modern image was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. In 1863, a picture of Santa illustrated by Nast appeared in Harper’s Weekly.  The story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation.

The idea of a wife for Santa Claus may have been the creation of several American authors, beginning in the mid-1800s. In 1889, the poet Katherine Lee Bates popularized Mrs. Claus in the poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride. The 1956 popular song by George Melachrino, Mrs. Santa Claus, and the 1963 children’s book How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas, by Phyllis McGinley, also helped establish her character in popular imagination.

Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s.

The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was invented by The Coca-Cola Company or that Santa wears red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand.

Historically, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising – White Rock Beverages used Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923.

In the modern world, Santa’s appearance isn’t just reserved for Christmas Eve.  Santa Claus now regularly appears in the weeks and days before Christmas in department stores, shopping malls and parties. The practice of this is credited to James Edgar, as he started doing this in 1890 in his Brockton, Massachusetts department store.

Having a Santa set up to take pictures with children is a ritual that dates back to 1918.

Writing letters to Santa Claus has been a Christmas tradition for children for many years. A study by some social scientists have found that boys and girls write different types of letters to Santa.

Girls generally write longer but more polite lists and express the nature of Christmas more in their letters than in letters written by boys. Girls also request gifts for other people on a more frequent basis.  And according to where the child is writing from, Santa also has different addresses.

In Canada, children address their letters: Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada, H0H 0H0. In England, children send their Santa letter to: Santa/Father Christmas, Santa’s Grotto, Reindeerland, SAN TA1.   The Finnish Santa Claus address is: Santa Claus, Santa Claus Village, FIN-96930 Arctic Circle, Finland.

In the modern information age, phone numbers and websites have been created to allow children and other interested parties to “track” Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. This started in 1955 when a Sears Roebuck store in Colorado Springs, Colorado, gave children a number to call a “Santa hotline”.

Unfortunately however, the number was mistyped and children called the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) on Christmas Eve instead. The Director of Operations, Col. Harry Shoup, received the first call for Santa and responded by telling children that there were signs on the radar that Santa was indeed heading south from North Pole. In 1958, Canada and the United States jointly created the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) and together tracked Santa Claus for children of North America that year and ever since.

This tracking can now be done via the Internet and NORAD’s website. Many other websites are available year-round that are devoted to Santa Claus and keeping tabs on his activities in his workshop. Many of these websites also include e-mail addresses, which allow children to send Santa Claus e-mail.

So now you know the history of Santa. And now in the words of poet Clement Clarke Moore, …”Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a Good Night!”


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