Did You Know... / FYI

From Saint to Santa Suit: The Evolution of Santa Claus

Photo source:  “Merry Old Santa Claus 1889.” Photo. Allposters.com

Photo source: “Merry Old Santa Claus 1889.” Photo. Allposters.com

Everyone has heard of Santa Claus, whether through the mall advertisements—“A visit from Saint Nicholas”—or any picture book about Christmas. But who is this man? Where did he come from? Did he always have that round belly and red suit? It is intriguing to find out where this myth came from and how over thousands of years, St. Nicholas became a jolly man with an excellent belly laugh. It is a very topsy-turvy, twisting tale that has years and years of history behind it.

The story starts in the early 100s in Lycia, which is in modern day Turkey, with the birth of St. Nicholas to Epiphaneos and Nona. Supposedly, soon after birth, the baby stood up and extended his arms in prayer to God. That was only the start of a long string of miracles that St. Nicholas performed during his lifetime which resulted in many cathedrals being dedicated to him. When Nicholas was a young man he heard of three young girls in his town who did not have money to be married. He secretly dropped a bag full of gold through the window for each of the girls so that they could marry. St. Nicholas eventually grew a long white beard before he died in 342 A.D. and was buried in a cathedral.

Photo source:  http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Saint_Nicholas

Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Saint_Nicholas

As Christianity began to spread, it reached Russia, and so did tales of St. Nicholas and his miracles. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of missionaries, so it was only natural that the missionaries brought tales of his saintly deeds with them on trips to Siberia. In this nomadic culture, reindeer were a nomad’s bragging rights, a sign of wealth and prosperity just like cars are today.

As we know, a missionary’s strategy usually involves adapting to that culture’s customs and rituals in order to share the Gospel more effectively. In the cultures up north, the Shaman, or spirit-traveler, was very important in spiritual life and commonly brought magical plants and gifts which he would use to heal the sick. In an important custom which took place during midwinter, the Shaman would slowly ascend steps, which supposedly led to the spirit-realm, accompanied by a protective reindeer, until he disappeared through the smoke-hole in the roof of the hut. St. Nicholas, or Nikolai Chudovortis, took on this role and became a Christian spirit-traveler. He was the religious man with whom people came to know God. Robin Chrichton puts it so well in his book, “Who is Santa Claus?”, when he says:

“Nikolai Chudovortis is now little more than a folk memory. But in the dark midwinter of 200 years ago he was flying high on magic mushrooms, carrying gifts for the gods on his supernatural reindeer sledge, and returning to the mortal world down the chimney.”

Our story turns now to the Dutch and their view of Santa Claus.  In 1442, The Netherlands was controlled by Spain, so their Santa Claus was called Sinter Klass and came from Spain, dressing as a bishop. In a large presentation Sinter Klass landed a few weeks before December 5 and marched through Amsterdam along with many floats.

Before the presentation, Sinter Klass attends to all of the good children by giving them presents and Zwarte Piet, his servant, deals with all of the bad children. If the children have been naughty, Zwarte Piet is supposed to leave a switch (maybe America should adopt this strategy), and if they have been very bad he is supposed to carry the children away in his sack. Sinter Klass also rides around the rooftops at night, and is supposed to be listening to see if children are behaving well or not at all. The children leave a carrot and some hay out each night as a snack for Sinter Klass’s white horse. These rituals—a white horse, receiving presents only if you were good, and leaving food—originated with the Norse Gods Woden or Odin.

The winter of 1822 was when the Santa Claus that we all know and love was  created. Clement Clark Moore, a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, was driving into town when he started to compose a poem off of the top of his head. Many of the details of the poem were based off Moore’s family servant who was a round man with a white beard and a few other characteristics of the modern Santa. The poem’s title was “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and begins with “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…” Sound familiar? From there the poem quickly advanced through the town, traveling by word of mouth until it was published in a New York newspaper and then all over America. Thomas Nast even made a cartoon for Santa Claus, blending many of the different national symbols of Christmas. Another artist from Germany remembered the Christmas figure of Germany and first gave Santa Claus his red suit.

Santa continued to evolve, just like he had for centuries, but this time he became more and more popular. A town in Indiana was named Santa Claus and a theme park called the North Pole was created. Many Christmas specials popped up like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Coca-Cola also used Santa’s commercial potential in their adds, with a picture of him enjoying the famous soft drink.

The story of Santa Claus is a fascinating one that is a medley of dozens of legends and figures and traditions from around the world. So next time “Hey Santa” comes on the radio, instead of changing the station,  think about how much the jolly man has changed over the years, and whether or not you would still call him a saint today.

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