Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, Odin, Baba Christmas, Babbo Natale, Black Peter, Christkindl, Ded Moroz, Gwiazdor, Joulupukki, Kanakaloka, Kerstman, Mos Craciun, Pere Noel, Sion Corn, Shengdan Laoren . . .
Santa is a mythical figure with legendary, historical and folkloric origins in many Western cultures. In England, Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century. During the reign of Henry VIII he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry to all.
England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on December 6th, the Christmas celebration was moved to December 25th to coincide with Christmas Day.
The Victorian revival of Christmas included Father Christmas as the emblem of ‘good cheer’.
Even so, his physical appearance (as is his name) is variable. John Leech created one famous image with his illustration of the “Ghost of Christmas Present” from Charles Dickens’s festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843)
Leech depicts him as a genial man in a green fur lined coat who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas everywhere.
During the Christianisation of Germanic Europe, this figure may have absorbed elements of the god Odin, who was associated with the Germanic pagan midwinter event of Yule, from whence the Yule Log derives, who leads a ghostly procession known as ‘The Wild Hunt’ through the skies.
The modern day figure of Santa is generally of a portly, joyous, white-bearded man – sometimes wearing spectacles – dressed in a full red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, black leather belt and boots and carrying a bag full of gifts for ‘good and deserving children’ This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, (Of which the 1934 release “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is a magical example), radio, television, children’s books and films.
Santa makes a list of all the children of the world, categorizing them as either “naughty” or “nice” and delivers toys, presents and sweeties to all of the well-behaved ones. Sometimes he will deliver black, smelly coal to the naughty ones as a warning against future unacceptable behaviour! And he accomplishes this feat in the space of just one night : Christmas Eve.
With the assistance of his loyal elves, who make the toys in their workshop and the trusty reindeer who pull his sleigh, he circumnavigates the globe at warp speed to accomplish his mission! His magical sleigh is pulled by eight reindeer (plus one) whose names are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen, not forgetting Rudolph of course! (In a number of European countries however, some children will have already received their presents on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6th, instead.)
Father Christmas is now widely seen as synonymous with the Santa Claus figure.
The gift-giver from church history and folklore, notably St Nicholas and Sinterklaas, merged with the English character Father Christmas to create the character known to the majority of the English-speaking world as Santa Claus.
In the English and later British colonies of North America, both British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. In Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into “Santa Claus” (He’d lost his bishop’s apparel and was, at first, pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe dressed in a long, green winter coat. Irving’s book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention. As the years passed, Santa Claus evolved in popular culture into a large, heavyset person.
Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century drew an image of Santa that appeared in Harper’s Weekly Magazine. The story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation.
Images of Santa Claus were further popularized when The Coca-Cola Company used a depiction of him for its Christmas advertising in the 1930s. But the popularly held belief that Santa wears red and white because they are the colours used to promote the Coca-Cola brand is not true!
Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image in its advertising. White Rock Beverages had already used a red and white Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and later its ginger ale in 1923.
Earlier still, Santa Claus had appeared dressed in red and white and essentially in his current form on several covers of Puck magazine in the first few years of the 20th century.
In some images from the early 20th century, Santa was depicted as personally making his toys by hand in a small workshop like a craftsman.
Eventually, the idea emerged that he had numerous elves responsible for making the toys, but the toys were still handmade by each individual elf working in the traditional manner.
It is also to be hoped that while Santa is hard at work making his toys for the children of the world, Mrs Claus is preparing the Christmas Cake, Mince Pies, Plum Pudding and all the sweetmeats to feed Santa and his helpers once their work is done!