Christmas is less than a week away, and once again we are all rushing around our houses trying to wrap presents, clean up, and get ready for the big event. Christmas is a time of year that is celebrated all over the world, and children around the world look forward to a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve as he travels to give presents to all.
Christmas is a holiday that is supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, so where did Sanat come from? And why is he the focus of this amazing day each and every year these days?
Well, there are many iterations of Santa across the world: Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nick, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle and Pelznickel. Many of us have questions about this mysterious figure such as where did Santa come from? how old is Santa? And why is he part of this celebration?
Well, today we are going to answer some of those questions with some key facts about the origins of Santa Claus across the world…
- The oldest iteration of Santa, Saint Nicholas, was born in Greece and was a Christian bishop. This might come as a surprise to most of you because it is always thought that this figure is of Nordic origin, but Saint Nichola himself is from far further south. Born around 280 A.D, he was made famous for his generosity towards others as well as anonymous gift-giving to the poor. He once saves three children from becoming prostitutes by dropping a sack of gold through their window each night. It is easy to see where the idea of Santa coming down the chimney came from!
- As he was born in Greece, Saint Nicholas almost certainly had olive skin which is a world away from his classic pale depictions. He actually had his face reconstructed by forensic scientists and it was discovered that he had a broken nose.
- Saint Nicholas is also known as Nichola the Wonderworker. This is due to the many ‘miracles’ he performed to help the poor live a better life.
- In 1087, Bari in Itlay decided to excavate the remains of Saint Nicholas, and his reliquary was desecrated. His spoils are still kept in Bari to this day.
- St. Nicholas is the most popular non-biblical saint in the world. When the Vikings entered the new world led by Erik the Red, they erected a cathedral dedicated to him, and this has been standing since 1126.
- Santa Claus has a lot of similarities to Odin in classic tales, and it was believed that Odin had two ravens listen at people’s chimney’s to find out how was naughty or nice. As well as this, during Yule (a Germanic holiday), Odin would ride an eight-legged horse through the sky called Sleipnir. This horse is thought to be parallel to Santa’s reindeer.
- Odin had many names in Skaldic poetry, including Langbarðr (long beard) and Jólnir (Yule figure). It was thought that when Odin rose through the skies with Sleipnir, children would leave out carrots inside boots for Sleipnir to eat and then Odin would replace this with sweets. Eventually, boots were replaced with stockings.
- In Nordic countries as well as Britain, St.Nicholas was associated with Pagan folklore, and the gift-giver at Christmas was not a god or a man, but a Yule Goat. This is likely where Krampus (half-goat, half-demon) found its origin.
- In Denmark in the 1840s, an elf called Nisse began delivering presents at Christmas. He appeared as short and bearded, wearing grey clothes and a red hat.
- The Yule Goat was completely replaced in the Scandinavian countries by the end of the 1800s and replaced with the elf Nisse.
- The first real hint of the name Santa Claus was likely from The Netherlands, where Christmas presents were delivered by a figure called Sinterklaas. The Sinterklaas feast is a tradition that dates back to the middle ages and it was a celebration that allowed richer folk to share their wealth and food with the poor. This is a traditional feast that happens on the 6th December and is still celebrated to this day.
- Sinterklaas was really the first figure that emanates the modern-day man, and he has a mixture of Pagan and Christian influences. Sinterklaas is described as an old man with long white hair and a beard. He wears a red cape over a bishops vestment (a nod to Saint Nicholas), and carries a shepherd’s staff. Sinterklaas rides a white horse, and his helpers find out who’s naughty or nice, and he records this information in a big red book.
- The Dutch share that Sinterklaas has helpers called Zwarte Piet, which means Black Peter in Dutch.
- Jan Schenkman wrote a book called Sint-Nicolaas en zijn knecht (Saint Nicholas and his Servant) that introduces the idea of him visiting houses and going down the chimney.
- 26% of Dutch people give presents on Sinterklaas Day AND Christmas Day… must be an expensive month!
- Father Christmas first appeared in a 161 play by Ben Jonson called Christmas his Masque. He was the personification of good cheer in the Christmas period and was accompanied by 10 children.
- Father Christmas came under threat after the English Civil War as Christmas was to be abolished as it was seen as a Catholic holiday. King Charles’ supporters used Father Christmas as a symbol of good cheer and hope, and eventually, in Victorian times, the idea of Father Christmas delivering gifts was born.
- Initially, Father Christmas was confined to the UK until Charles Dickens released A Christmas Carol. Father Christmas was represented as the ghost of Christmas present and guided Ebenezer Scrooge through Christmas Day with Bob Crachit and his family to show what the poorer man would do on this festive day.
- Father Christmas hasn’t always worn red, he has been illustrated over the year in many other colours such as green, purple, and blue. Red only became the classic colour in the 1800s.
- St.Nicholas and Sinterklaas eventually became included in the British Father Christmas depiction of the character in the 1800s to create what we know today as Santa Claus. This is why both Santa Claus and Father Christmas are considered to be the same person. There are only minor differences in the way people celebrate on Christmas Eve, with Brits opting to leave out beer or port for Father Christmas instead of milk.
- The German Santa Claus was nearly abolished by Luther who was the 16th professor of theology. He wanted to get rid of all notions of Christmas due to their Catholic connotations.
- In Germany, there are many different names associated with the figure depending on the region. For example, some call him Klaus, Nickel, Weihnachtsmann, and Niglo. However, these names are more commonly associated with the earlier December 6th holiday of Niklolaustag.
- The German depiction of St.Nicholas is very much like something out of a Grimm fairy tale as he doesn’t arrive with cute little elves, rather he arrives with some scary creatures. These creatures are known as Aschenmann, Bartl, Boozenickel, Hans Trapp, Klaubauf, Belsnickel/Pelznickel, Ruhklas, and Knecht Ruprecht. They are the Nikolaus-Begleiter (Nicholas Companions) and are based on various German folklore. We would rather the elves, to be honest. Belsnickel is a figure who will give socks full of candy to good kids, but coal to the bad ones; unless you change his mind by singing a song.
- Krampus, the half-goat, half-demon friend of St.Nicholas is the most infamous of all his companions. Krampus is a scary looking beast and his role is to punish naughty children. Sometimes he’ll swat children with branches, sometimes he will kidnap a child in a sack to take to hell. This creature is a scary part of Christmas mythology and not one we want to cross!
- From 1555, St.Nicholas would bring gifts to German children on the 6th December. This holiday is still celebrated to this day as a man dressed as der Heilige Nikolaus will travel from house to house in Austria and bring small gifts to the children who live there.
- Pére Noël is the French version of Santa and he has more style than most depictions of the character. Père Noël has a furry hood that is built into the cloak to replace the hat, and it looks much more fashionable than the traditional get-up.
- In France, children write letters to Père Noël in school, and every child is guaranteed to get a response from the man himself. This was made a law in France in 1962, stating that every child who writes a letter will receive a postcard.
- Around the world, there are many letters sent to Santa, and the countries that send the most letters are France, Canada, and the USA: with 1.7million, 1.35million, and 1million respectively.