Despite his current, saintly name, Santa Claus pre-dates the Christian faith, probably by centuries. Many cultures performed midwinter festivals celebrating the solstice and the eventual arrival of spring. In fact, people may have believed that the attendant rituals ensured spring's coming. Ancient Rome had two such festivals: Saturnalia, honouring the god of the harvest, and Natalis Solis Invicti, celebrating the birth of the sun. Rome also saw the growing cult of Mithra, a largely forgotten god with a familiar birthdate: December 25.
Central figures in some European holidays include the Yule Spirit or Yule King or Holly King, Old Man Winter, and the Lord of Misrule. Often these take the form of walking fertility symbols who may have developed from the Roman god Saturn.1 You might know a version of these characters as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. A jolly giant, he wears red or green (the traditional colours of fertility), has a well-fed belly (the envy of our ancestors during winter), sports a burly beard (a symbol of male sexual maturity), and a crown of leaves (the sign of spring's return). They may bear little resemblance to the ho-ho-ho-ing senior citizen we know,2 but they are among our Santa's ancestors.
Midwinter celebrations carried on into the Christian era, much to the chagrin of the Church, which distrusted anything of pagan origin. By the fourth century, many clergymen had decided that, if they could not eliminate the festival, they should incorporate it into their faith. No official feast date for Jesus's birth as yet existed; the Bible identifies neither the day nor the season. The connections between pagan festivals of earthly renewal, and a Christian figure of spiritual rebirth, however, seem obvious enough. Liberius made the official declaration of December 25th in 353 C.E.. Many old customs would, over time, find their way into the new celebration.
About the same time that a pope was planning Jesus's birthday, a bishop was involving himself with the problems faced by children. Stories spread about how this clergyman of Myra, Nicholas by name, helped young people, and gave presents to the needy. After his death, the Catholic Church proclaimed him patron saint of children. To this day, it is a white-bearded St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas, with bishop's robe and mitre, who brings gifts to many European households.
In other cultures, the pagan fertility figures and the Christian bishop gradually combined to become Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. Variations include Kris Kringle, a name most likely derived from Christ Kindl (Christ-child) or Belsnickle derived from Pelz-nickle (Nicholas in Furs. More detailed accounts of these proto-Santas appear elsewhere).
In the nineteenth century, Christmas grew in cultural importance; correspondingly, Claus increased in popularity. He was still, frequently, a giant in those days, though a white-bearded one. Most of the time, he wore red, green (remnants of the midwinter celebrations) or white (a nod to Nick?), but artists also depicted him in yellow, blue, and other festive colours. Stories were told which housed him in the far north-- where winter never ends-- and horses or reindeer were said to be his method of transportation. The elves, meanwhile, appear to be borrowed from Norway and Denmark, where julnissen were said to hide presents on Christmas Eve, to be found the next morning. (at this point we should also recall the Norse god Odin, another Northerner whom many have connected to Claus lore).
Washington Irving's 1809 book, Knickerbocker's History of New York, made Santa a pipe-smoking old elf, and Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," written in 1848, gave "eight tiny reindeer" their popular names. Nineteenth century artists such as Felix Darley drew upon this image to create his short, fat Santa. Thomas Nast, in particular, influenced later artists, such as Norman Rockwell, who illustrated similar Santas for commercial publications such as the Saturday Evening Post. By the 1920s, the standard, modern image of Santa was set. The Coca-Cola company, often incorrectly identified as creating that image, began using the character in advertisements in the 1930s. After all, he wears their corporate colours. Their Santa (painted by Haddon Sundblom) made few changes to the existing version, and Coke overplays their connection to the Jolly Old Pitchman. Their key role seems to be in helping to re-export the established U.S. version of the character to the world.
Literature and commerce have brought further touches. In the 1940s, a Montgomery Ward promotional campaign created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, while author Valentine Davies further popularized the name Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Other ideas have proved less successful. L. Frank Baum, of Wizard of Oz fame, wrote a story which gave Claus a lion for an associate. For some reason, the notion of a friendly Christmas carnivore has never caught on. Likewise, Baum's names for the reindeer-- Gnossie and Flossie, Racer and Pacer, Reckless and Speckless, Fearless and Peerless, Ready and Steady-- have never grabbed the popular imagination.
Santa's changing nature has always reflected popular ideology. He was a fertility symbol when we were closer to nature, a bishop once Christianity became widespread, a commercial pitchman when our culture began bowing to business and finance. Currently, the mass media influences our perceptions of him. Like all good mythic figures, Claus will likely live on; what shape he wears in this millennium will depend on what gods we choose to revere.
1. Norse dieties also influenced Santa's image. Some sources cite both the white-bearded, fatherly Odin and the (often) red-cloaked Thor as cultural ancestors, and connect these to the "King Winter" toasted by some ancients. Of course, many European cultures boast characters who played and play some role in Midwinter celebrations. Italian children, for example, traditionally receive presents from either the Mother Goose-like Bufana or (as in Spain and elsewhere) the Magi. The American Santa Claus, however, has been steadily driving these regional figures into retreat.
2. The Lord or King of Misrule often appears as a red or green-robed jester, and medieval/Renaissance Yuletide illustrations exist which feature such a character alongside a leaf-crowned Yule King.
A variation of this article, written by this noder, first appeared in Scene magazine, December 17-January 13 1998-1999. It has since been reprinted online and apparently appeared in a high school newspaper. You may find it here with cool illustrations.
References and Further Reading
L. Frank Baum. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
Robert Brenner. Christmas Past: A Collector's Guide to its History and Decorations
. West Chester
, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1985
George Buday. The Story of the Christmas Card
: Odhams P.
W.F. Dawson. Christmas: Its Origins and Associations (1902
). London: Gale Research, 1968
Davies. A Miracle on 34th Street
. New York
John M. Golby and A. William Purdue. The Making of the Modern Christmas
: U of Georgia
E.O. James. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals
. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961
George McKnight. St. Nicholas
: Corner House, 1974
Thomas Nast. Christmas Drawings for the Human Race
). New York: Harper and Rowe, 1971
Oxford English Dictionary
Various Santa decorations, private collection, southwestern Ontario