An old man dressed in red rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer and delivers toys to children in their sleep. He enjoys climbing down chimneys and pushes up his glasses to read letters written by well behaved boys and girls, ho ho ho, he says as he moves on to the next home. His beard is the color of snow.
The figure of Santa Claus —also known as Saint Nicholas— is part of a long history of Christmas traditions in different parts of the world. The origins of his legend stretch all the way back to the 3rd century. It is believed that Saint Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in Myra in Asia Minor (now Turkey), and that he inherited a lot of money from his parents. He traveled in his red bishop’s robes and had a reputation for being kind, always eager to help the poor.
One of the stories most often told about Saint Nicholas is the one about the three young women. He wanted to offer money to a poor family for the dowry of the eldest daughter, but he didn’t want them to know. He dropped some gold coins down the chimney, which then landed in a stocking hung up to dry by the fireplace. Saint Nicholas repeated the act for the second and third daughter, and their father, curious about who was helping them, discovered the benefactor was Saint Nicholas.
Over the course of hundreds of years, his popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. December 6th, the anniversary of his death, became his feast day. The day was considered a lucky day to get married or to make large purchases. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas was revered, especially in the Netherlands.
1. Father Christmas in the UK
In earlier times, Father Christmas was a pagan figure representing the coming of Spring, who wore a long hooded green cloak and a wreath of ivy, mistletoe or holly. In the 5th and 6th centuries Britain fell under Saxon rule and Father Christmas acquired the attributes of the Saxons’ Father Time (also called King Winter). People would dress up as King Winter and be invited into people’s homes to sit and eat and drink by the fireside. It was believed that if people were kind to King Winter, a milder winter would be in store for them, and so the association between Father Christmas and being offered gifts was born.
The Vikings also had their share in the tradition. During Yuletide the Norse god Odin was believed to take on the character of Jul, a stout old man with a white beard and long blue hooded cloak. He offered gifts to the good and punished the bad.
When the Normans arrived in England, they brought along the story of St Nicholas. It was absorbed into the legend of Father Christmas. From the 15th century onward, Father Christmas was seen as a the emblem of a positive spirit during Christmas.
2. Santa Claus in the US
St. Nicholas arrived in American culture thanks to Dutch settlers. Toward the end of the XVIII century, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families were honoring the anniversary of Sinter Klaas’s death.
Over time, the name evolved and Sinter Klaas was shortened to Santa Claus. In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. The background of the engraving contains now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace. In the early 1800’s, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York.
Eventually, it became popular knowledge that Santa Claus’s home address is at the North Pole. On Christmas Eve, children from around the world write letters and leave cookies and milk for him, fruits and carrots for his reindeer. Santa Claus keeps track of who has been “naughty” and who has obeyed mom and dad when deciding who will receive a present.
3. Variations around the world
Christkind or Kris Kringle was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. Meaning “Christ child,” Christkind is an angel-like figure often accompanied by St. Nicholas on his holiday missions.
In Russia, it is believed that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem so that they couldn’t find Jesus. Later, she felt remorseful, but could not find the men to undo the damage. On January 5, Babouschka visits Russian children leaving gifts at their bedsides in the hope that one of them is the baby Jesus and she will be forgiven.
In Scandinavia, an elf called Jultomten delivers gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. Père Noël is responsible for bringing toys to French children. In Italy, a story exists about a woman called La Befana, a witch who rides a broomstick down the chimneys of Italian homes to deliver toys into the stockings of lucky children.