Being Santa Claus
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The History of Santa Claus and Christmas
The legends, customs, and traditions of Christmas and Santa Claus are many and varied around the world. But they have also changed over time. Let’s go back to the beginning and trace the evolution of Christmas and Santa Claus over the centuries…
Was Saint Nicholas a real man?
Born around the year 280 A.D., St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a town in what is now Turkey. The only son of wealthy Christian parents who died from a plague while he was still very young, Nicholas was raised by his uncle, the Bishop of Patara. Very religious from an early age, Nicholas believed strongly in the Christian doctrine of charity for the less fortunate. Legend has it that, as an adult, Bishop Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.
The secret origin of Christmas stockings
It’s said that Saint Nicholas once saved three sisters from being sold into slavery by providing them a dowry so they could be married. The legend tells of St. Nicholas wanting his gift to the sisters to stay anonymous. So instead of just handing the money to them, he tossed a purse of gold coins through an open window, and it landed in a stocking drying by the fire. (Sound familiar?) Based on retellings of this story, as early as 1700 years ago, children would hang stockings or leave their shoes out in hopes that Saint Nicholas would visit in the night and give them coins.
Saint Nicholas, the Patron Saint of…?
Bishop Nicholas of Myra died on December 6, 343 AD, and within a century, he was canonized by the Church as Saint Nicholas. He is most commonly known in the West as the patron saint of children. But Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors. In Greece, you will often hear sailors wish each other luck by saying, “May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller.” Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia in 987 AD. And finally, Saint Nicholas is known as the patron saint of the wrongfully condemned, showing his desire for true justice for all.
How did Saint Nicholas and Jesus come to share a holiday?
After the canonization of Saint Nicholas, December 6 (the day of his passing) became known as Saint Nicholas Day, a celebration of gift-giving throughout the Christian world. As the years and centuries went by, Saint Nicholas Day merged with the Christmas holiday, since the two holidays occurred so close together. And that’s how Christmas became a time for giving presents and how Saint Nicholas got connected with a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
Is Saint Nicholas really the Norse god Odin?
During the middle ages, in some parts of Europe, Saint Nicholas and his holiday merged with the pagan god Odin (Woden) and his holiday, a Germanic winter celebration known as of Yule (hence the term “yule time” or “yuletide”). According to legend, Odin would lead a hunting party at Yule, riding across the sky on an 8-legged horse named Sleipnir. (Eight legs? Eight reindeer? Possibly, but probably not. We’ll learn the origin of Santa’s reindeer farther down the page.) Yule tradition had children fill their boots with carrots, straw, or sugar for Odin’s flying horse and leave them by the chimney. During Yule, in appreciation for leaving food for Sleipnir, Odin would reward children with gifts and candy. Eventually, as Christianity spread throughout Europe and paganism faded, Saint Nicholas became the bearded rider of the horse who dropped gifts for children down chimneys.
The Dutch believe that St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) actually lives in Spain and travels by boat!
During the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, many Catholic saints were shunned by Protestant countries, including poor old Saint Nicholas. (Only the Dutch kept up the celebration of Saint Nicholas, whom they called in their language Sint Nikolaas, or Sinterklaas for short.) Christmas continued, and so did gift-giving. But in most of the non-Catholic European countries, the gift-giver at Christmas was changed from Saint Nicholas to the little Christ Child (an angelic baby Jesus). In German, the the word for “little Christ Child” is “Christkindl.” The name Kris Kringle comes from that German word.
Massachusetts once made Christmas illegal!
In the 17th century, Protestants and Puritans resisted the revelry of Christmas. They wanted a quiet, contemplative holiday, and they brought that restrained tradition with them to America. In 1659, the Massachusetts colony actually banned Christmas! But there was still one American settlement celebrating Christmas with merriment: New Amsterdam (which later became New York). The Dutch Catholics hadn’t yet given up on Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, as they called him in their language) and the joy of the Christmas holiday!
The Dutch believe that St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) actually lives in Spain and travels by boat!
You wouldn’t recognize the Dutch Sinterklaas as Santa Claus! Sinterklaas is a thin, elderly, serious man who wears bishop’s clothes and carries a staff. He rides a white flying horse over rooftops, dropping presents down the chimneys of well-behaved children. And instead of elves, he has an assistant known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Oh, and Sinterklaas doesn’t live at the North Pole. He and Zwarte Piet live in Spain and arrive each year on December 6 by boat!
The name “Santa Claus” was originally a typo!
Would you believe that the name “Santa Claus” was originally just a typo??? It’s true! The reporters for The New York Gazette in 1773 were writing an article about the traditions of the Dutch who still lived in New York City, formerly the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. Having no idea how to spell the Dutch name “Sint Nikolaas” (or “Sinterklaas” as most of the Dutch pronounced it), and not bothering to ask any Dutch people for the proper spelling, the newspaper folks took their best shot and called him “St. A. Claus.” No kidding! A few months later, another newspaper (Rivington’s Gazetteer) referred to the Dutch gift-giver as “Santa Claus,” and that’s been his name in English ever since!
The book that made Santa Claus big and jolly!
Washington Irving’s 1809 “A History of New York” was the first-ever mention of Santa sliding down a chimney (rather than just dropping presents down the chimney). This was also the first time Santa was ever described as rotund, jolly, and smoking a pipe. Remember that the Dutch Sinterklaas was thin and serious and carried a staff. But Washington Irving’s description caught on, and suddenly Santa Claus had a brand new image!
The professor whose poem launched Santa Claus into the big time!
Santa’s next big break came in 1823 when a professor of Oriental & Greek Literature named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a 56-line Christmas poem entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” for his three daughters. Do you recognize the title of this famous poem? Well, you might know it by its later title, taken from the first five lines of the poem: “Twas the Night Before Christmas…”
The poem also established for the first time that Santa has eight reindeer!
“Twas the Night Before Christmas” did more to define the character of Santa Claus than anything that had come before it. Along with a colorful physical description of the “right jolly old elf,” Clement Clarke Moore’s poem was also the first time anyone had ever mentioned Santa using reindeer and a sleigh, rather than just riding a horse. Not only that, but Moore established that Santa Claus in fact had EIGHT reindeer, and he gave them all names that we still use today!
These were the original names of Donner and Blitzen…
In “The Night Before Christmas” poem, two of Santa’s reindeer were originally named Dunder and Blixem (Dutch words for “thunder and lightning”), a nod to Santa’s origins from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Later on, these two reindeer became more commonly known by the German words for “thunder and lightning”: Donder and Blitzen. And of course, Donder has now become Donner for most Americans.
The first mention of Mrs. Claus was in 1849…
The wife of Santa Claus is first mentioned in the short story “A Christmas Legend” by James Rees in 1849. In the story, a family offers shelter for the night to an old man and woman, both carrying a large bundle on their backs. The night is Christmas Eve, and in the morning, the children of the house find piles of toys left for them. The family suspects that the elderly couple is really “old Santa Claus and his wife,” hence the first reference to Mrs. Claus. It turns out, however, that the visitors are really the host’s long-lost elder daughter and her husband in disguise.
Santa Claus wraps himself in the American flag!
When did Santa Claus start looking like Santa Claus? Various drawings of Santa in the mid-1800s showed him wearing anything from a blue 3-cornered hat or a broad-brimmed hat to a red waistcoat and even yellow stockings! Even the first Santa Claus cartoon by Thomas Nast in “Harper’s Weekly” in 1963 showed Santa dressed in American flag stars and stripes as he addressed Union troops fighting in the Civil War. But it wouldn’t be long before Thomas Nast would establish Santa’s distinct look for children across America to recognize.
The man who invented the Christmas card
Prior to 1874, the concept of a Christmas card was all but unheard of! Despite the common celebration of Christmas by this point, cards weren’t typically a part of it…until Louis Prang came along. Starting in England in 1873 and the following year in America, Prang began to produce high-quality lithographic cards specifically for Christmas. Known as the “father of the American Christmas card,” by 1881 Prang was reportedly printing five million Christmas cards a year!
Santa’s first appearance on a Christmas card
Louis Prang’s earliest Christmas cards were simple flower designs with the words “Merry Christmas.” But in 1885, he produced his first Christmas card featuring a red-suited Santa, and Mr. Claus would remain a frequent Christmas card subject until Prang gave up the card business in the mid 1890s.
Establishing that Santa Claus is married…
Katherine Lee Bates’ 1889 poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” popularized Mrs. Claus (“Goody” is short for “Goodwife”). After its publication, it became widely accepted that Santa Claus was, indeed, married.
The first-ever department store Santa Claus
The first department store Santa appeared in 1890 at The Boston Store in Brockton, MA, played by storeowner James Edgar. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army began dressing up unemployed New York men in Santa Claus suits to solicit donations.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
In 1897, the following letter was received by the “New York Sun” from Virginia O’Hanlon, 115 West 95th Street, New York City: “Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?” Editorial writer Francis Pharcellus Church responded to the letter in a festive and optimistic column that became one of the most famous op-eds in history. You might recognize the most memorable sentence of his response: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
“The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus”
So passionate was the desire of children at the turn of the 20th century to know everything about Santa that famous author L. Frank Baum (of “Wizard of Oz” fame) wrote “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” in 1902. The book was later adapted, and simplified quite heavily, into a 1985 Christmas television special produced in stop-motion animation by Rankin/Bass.
The U.S. Post Office lets YOU be Santa Claus!
Want to make a child’s Christmas dream come true? The US Postal Service first started the “Letters to Santa” program (now known as “Operation Santa”) just over 100 years ago in 1912, and it’s still on today! Here’s how it works. The USPS receives hundreds of thousands of letters addressed simply to Santa Claus at the North Pole. Postal “elves” go through the letters and separate those that express serious need. A person wishing to adopt a letter can go to a Post Office, present valid photo identification, select one or more letters to take with them, and fill out a form that includes the list of letters they are adopting. The child’s address(es) on the envelope will have been blocked out and the letter assigned a number. After the individual fulfills the child’s wishes with a gift, he or she returns with the letter and unwrapped gift to the same Post Office and pays the postage for the package. A postal employee will match the number on the letter with the child’s address, apply a label to it, and put the package in the mailstream. Go to your local Post Office and ask them about it; it’ll make you feel amazing!
The first soft drink company to use a red and white suited Santa was NOT Coca Cola!
You might be surprised to learn that Coca Cola wasn’t the first soft drink company to use a red and white suited Santa. That distinction belongs to White Rock Beverages, which featured Santa Claus in his familiar red and white garments in 1915 to sell mineral water. Coke wouldn’t include Santa in their ads until 1931.
Coca Cola started putting Santa Claus into its ads in 1931…and continued to do so for 35 years!
Beginning in 1931, Coca Cola ran a world-famous 35-year advertising campaign where artist Haddon Sundblom would paint portraits of Santa Claus holding or drinking Coca Cola. These holiday season ads helped to popularize Santa Claus even more and cement his image in the minds of people around the world as a stout, jolly, red-suited man.
The origin of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Nearly a hundred years after Clement Moore established Santa Claus as having eight reindeer, a ninth made an appearance in 1939 when Montgomery Ward decided to produce their own holiday give-away for children. A low-paid in-house advertising copywriter named Robert L. May was given the assignment to write a “cheery” Christmas book for shoppers, maybe with a cute animal as the star. The story that Mr. May created was titled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Rudolf was almost named Reginald???
Author Robert L. May actually considered naming the red-nosed reindeer “Rollo” or “Reginald” before deciding upon using the name “Rudolph”. The book proved to be a stunning success, as Montgomery Ward distributed over 2.5 million copies of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1939. Wartime restrictions on paper use kept “Rudolph” from seeing print again until 1946, but in that year, another 3.6 million copies were distributed to Montgomery Ward shoppers.
Rudolf leaps off the page!
In 1948, Robert May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the story of Rudolph into a song, and when singing cowboy Gene Autry released “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” just before Christmas of 1949, the record jumped to number one, selling 1.75 million copies. Since then, three dozen other singing stars have recorded their versions (including Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Paul Anka, the Temptations, the Jackson 5, Dolly Parton, Babyface, Jewel, Ringo Starr, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Chicago, Barry Manilow, and Destiny’s Child). The story of Rudolph has been translated into 25 languages and was made into a beloved television movie, narrated by Burl Ives, in 1964.
A wrong number in 1955 led to in NORAD tracking Santa Claus by radar each year…
Each year, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracks Santa’s progress on Christmas Eve and reports it to the public. But the whole thing started quite by accident! Back in 1955, a Sears department store placed an ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper inviting children to call Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and Sears provided a phone number. Unfortunately, there was a typo, and the number printed in the ad actually went to the Colorado Springs Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center! But rather than considering this an annoyance and telling kids that they dialed the wrong number, Colonel Harry Shoup, who was on duty that night, told his staff to play along and provide the “current location” of Santa Claus for any child that called. The tradition continued even when CONAD was replaced by NORAD in 1958. And today, using corporate sponsorship only (no government funding) and volunteers, NORAD handles more than 12,000 e-mails and more than 70,000 telephone calls from more than two hundred countries and territories during the twenty-five hours from 2am on Dec. 24 until 3am (Mountain Time) on Dec. 25.
Santa Claus has his own zip code…in Canada!
So where exactly does Santa live? Most American kids will say the North Pole, and there is an actual American town called North Pole, Alaska, where many American letters to Santa are addressed. But Canada also claims the North Pole, and has an address for Santa with a Canadian zip code of H0H0H0. On December 23, 2008, Jason Kenney, one of Canada’s ministers, formally awarded Canadian citizenship status to Santa Claus.
What’s the difference between Santa Claus and Father Christmas?
So who is Father Christmas, and what does he have to do with Santa Claus? Originally, back in the 1600s, Father Christmas was just a symbol of Christmas celebration and cheer, having nothing to do with children or gift giving. Instead, he was a reaction to the English Puritans trying to impose a mood of seriousness upon the Christmas holiday. “Old Christmas” or “Father Christmas” was a kind, elderly gentleman with white hair, beard, and festive, flowing robes (usually green). Father Christmas sought to bring joyful merriment back to the holiday that the Puritans tried to make somber. The boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was based on the original Father Christmas. Eventually Father Christmas evolved to become synonymous with Santa Claus, switching to a red suit and bringing presents to good little children.
For Christmas in Scandinavia, children leave a bowl of porridge for Julennisse / Jultomte
In Norway, the Julennisse (in Sweden, he is called Jultomte) gives children gifts in person. Typically, the nisser and tomtar are short gnomes who help farmers care for animals. But the special Julennisse/Jultomte is the size of a full-grown man, which makes it easier for Norwegian and Swedish fathers and uncles to dress up in his garb and hand out toys at Christmas. Scandinavian tradition requires children to leave a bowl of julegrøt (porridge) with butter out in the barn or in the house for Julennisse/Jultomte on Christmas Eve. And don’t forget that butter! One old legend tells of a nisse/tomte who found a bowl of porridge left for him with no butter. In anger, he killed one of the prized cows in the barn and then ate the porridge anyway. At the bottom of the bowl, he discovered that the children had put butter in after all, and he felt ashamed. To atone for his misdeed, the nisse/tomte walked to the neighbor’s farm, took their best cow, and led her back to the stall of the cow he had killed.
Don’t be naughty n Iceland or else the thirteen Yule Lads might leave you a rotting potato!
In Iceland, there isn’t just one Christmas gift-giver but thirteen of them! And it isn’t Santa Claus, per se, but a group of troll-like Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir), each a mischievous practical joker. For each of the thirteen nights before Christmas Eve, one Yule Lad will visit, leaving gifts for good children while the bad children get rotting potatoes! Although the Yule Lads have traditionally been pictured wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing, in more modern times, they’ve each begun wearing red suits like Santa Claus wears.
Beware the KRAMPUS!!!
In many Alpine countries and throughout central Europe, there exists a Christmas character that might seem strange to many of the rest of us. Traveling alongside Saint Nicholas at Christmastime is the demonic Krampus, and he really is a monster. While Saint Nicholas rewards good children with presents, the Krampus supposedly captures the worst behaved children and carries them in a sack to his lair for punishment. It sounds pretty terrifying! But in nearly a dozen countries, on December 5 (the day before Saint Nicholas day), young men dress up as the Krampus and roam the streets with rusty chains and bells. The idea is that the Krampus will scare children into behaving extra well so that Saint Nicholas will bring them presents on Christmas. Although somewhat controversial, Krampus celebrations continue, but some countries like Austria are trying to change the image of the Krampus from fearsome to humorous. Good luck with that!
Santa Claus versus Belsnickel!
If you think the Krampus is scary, Santa Claus was nearly Belsnickel! The German “Nicholas in fur” (the English translation of the name) was the holiday gift-giver for centuries, and his legend traveled to America when German colonists settled in Pennsylvania. And in the 1800s, as the legend of Santa Claus was growing in New York, across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, so was the legend of Belsnickel. Be glad that Santa Claus won the popularity contest, as Belsnickel isn’t nearly as nice a guy! Unlike the Krampus, who travels with St. Nicholas, Belsnickel IS St. Nicholas and arrives alone. He’s as grumpy as the Grinch, and wears tattered and dirty clothing. In his pockets are candies and cakes and nuts for the good children, but in his hand is a wooden switch to beat bad children…yikes! Belsnickel would visit homes a couple of weeks before Christmas to check up on children, seeming to know already who was bad. He would arrive grumpy, but if children sang him songs, Belsnickel would cheer up a little and drop treats on the floor. But watch out! Any child jumping for the goodies too quickly might get a wallop with the switch. It might sound harsh, but many German and Pennsylvania Dutch children found the visits of Belsnickel to be benign and even fun. These days, Belsnickel is seen only very rarely, as Santa Claus came out on top.
In Slavic nations, the gift giver is Ded Moroz
In Russia and in many of the current Slavic countries that used to be a part of the Soviet Union, gifts are given to children on New Years by Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost” in English). He is a sorcerer who carries a large staff and wears a red and white fur coat (similar to Santa and St. Nicholas). However, unlike Santa, Ded Moroz doesn’t come secretly in the middle of the night but rather appears during New Years parties at schools and performances where standardized gifts are given out to every child in attendance. In cases where a child can’t get to a live appearance, Ded Moroz will leave presents under a New Year tree. Another difference from Santa and St. Nick is that Ded Moroz travels around with his granddaughter and helper, Snegurochka (“Snow Maiden”). Together, the two fight off the evil witch, Baba Yaga, who wants to steal their gifts away from the children.
In Italy, La Befana will leave you gifts and candy, AND she’ll sweep up your house, too!
In Italy, children get a visit the night of January 5 (Epiphany Eve) from La Befana, an old woman who rides a broom from house to house. She leaves candy for good children and coal for bad children. (In some parts of Italy, Befana leaves dark-colored rock candy for naughty children, just so they still have something sweet.) There are many legends of La Befana and why she visits children, but most deal with the birth of Jesus and the Three Wise Men coming to La Befana’s home to ask for directions to Bethlehem. She does not know, and when they offer to take her with them, La Befana is too busy with her cleaning to go. Later, she regrets not joining them and sets off to find the baby Jesus herself. In some legends she is successful, in others she in not. But to this day, La Befana still visits children and leaves them gifts, just as she tried to do for the baby Jesus. And how do children know it was La Befana who came to their home in the middle of the night and left candy…and not their parents? Simple! La Befana is an excellent house cleaner, and whenever she visits a home on Epiphany Eve, she sweeps the floor!