there is this gorgeous michael leunig cartoon about the nature of santa. it considers not whether children should believe in santa, but whether santa should believe in children. it talks about whether childhood exists, or whether it is an old christmas legend, whether, if childhood exists, it is inhabited by actual children - innocent, hopeful children. "trusting believers... saviours and renewers... the greatest lovers... the sweetest dreamers..."

"one person, santa claus, still believes in all these things and each christmas night he goes out searching for as many such children as he can find.

he tiptoes into their homes just for the love of seeing them sleeping.
he is so grateful for their existence that he leaves gifts.

occasionally even santa has his doubts. to him it sometimes all seems too good to be true."

this is from his book of cartoons short notes from the long history of happiness.

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. London: Odhams P.

W.F. Dawson. Christmas: Its Origins and Associations (1902). London: Gale Research, 1968.

Valentine Davies. A Miracle on 34th Street. New York, 1947.

John M. Golby and A. William Purdue. The Making of the Modern Christmas. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1986.

E.O. James. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.

George McKnight. St. Nicholas. Williamstown: Corner House, 1974.

Thomas Nast. Christmas Drawings for the Human Race(1890). New York: Harper and Rowe, 1971.

Oxford English Dictionary.

Various Santa decorations, private collection, southwestern Ontario.

"I'm gonna shove coal so far up your stocking you'll be coughing up diamonds!" - Santa Claus, "Xmas Story"

Matt Groening and the team at Futurama wound up creating one of their most controversial characters when they decided to bring Santa Claus to life in two Christmas-themed episodes of the series, "Xmas Story" and "A Tale Of Two Santas" They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and in the case of Mom's Friendly Robot Factory they were right. In the 2200s the company decided to build a robot Santa Claus that would hand out gifts to those it deemed nice, but due to a programming error the robotic Kris Kringle invariably judges everyone as naughty, thereby making innocent people a target for lethal termination. Santa spends the year in his heavily guarded ice fortress on Neptune (security measures include saw blades, bombs, and angry guard dogs that bark "Jingle Bells") while watching his large monitors for signs of naughtiness (such as picking one's nose, for example), starving his shrimpy Neptunian elves, and making a list of all human "atrocities". Then, every Xmas Eve, Santa makes the trip to Earth in order to go on a bloody rampage: dropping bombs, launching missiles, and shooting people with toy-related weapons such as the bicycle gun.

Santa Claus was first introduced in Season 2's "Xmas Story" in which Santa (voiced by John Goodman) went on his yearly rampage through New New York, very nearly killing Fry and Leela. In an extremely rare case of judging someone as nice, Santa awarded a new pogo stick to Dr. Zoidberg who used it to aid in blasting Santa back to space until next year. The broadcast of Season 3's "A Tale Of Two Santas" was actually delayed one year because the FOX Network felt that it was too violent to air in the show's 7pm timeslot. The episode eventually aired at a special 9:30pm time, and in this sequel Santa (now voiced by John DiMaggio) became frozen in ice, leading to Bender taking over the Xmas duties. However, instead of a rampage Bender decided to hand out presents, resulting in him being attacked and arrested by the angry and fearful New New Yorkers. It was only after the real Santa appeared at Bender's execution that his good name was cleared and, as a reward, Bender was invited to help out with the annual holiday massacre.

Santa Claus has only made these two appearances on Futurama and rumor has it that the character was dropped due to the large number of complaints by angry parents over the image of a beloved robotic version of a classic Christmas character spreading death and terror throughout the world. Add to those complaints the issues that some viewers had with Christmas in the year 3000 being replaced with Xmas (that is, ecks-mas), a holiday devoted to commercialism and gift-giving rather than more traditional religious customs. Whatever the reason for his on-screen retirement, Santa seems to be gone... for now. Ho ho ho.

Futurama Season Two DVDs

Santa Claus: Good Clean Fun or Pernicious Lie?

I know that many people think that the tradition of Santa Claus as the bearer of Christmas morning gifts is a fun thing to do with children, but I can’t help but see it as a dangerous tradition. Lying to children is commonplace. And bad. If you can ditch the Christmas lie, it might be a good first step to a healthy and honest relationship with your kids.

I call it a pernicious lie -- even as it seems like such a small thing, for two reasons. The practice adversely affects: 1) you and 2) the kids. Or more precisely, your relationship with your kids. The first, and least visible, is that it reinforces the notion (in your own mind) that lying to your kids is generally acceptable. Once you’ve told this little white lie, the next one won’t seem so bad. Eventually you’ll have a relationship built on a web of untruth -- ready to collapse. Remember, your kids will inevitably discover the true nature of Santa Claus as a myth and internalize the fact that you lied to them. Hopefully, this is their first experience discovering your deceit. But from the first time forward, the notion that whatever you’re saying might be a lie will hang out in the back of their head. It is unavoidable. And this is the opposite of what your kids need. They need to know that their relationship with you is rock-solid and founded on mutual respect.

In modern western culture, I expect the Santa lie to be second in prevalence only to lying about sex (also a mistake). And it’s such a trivial thing. By the same logic used to justify the deception, you can understand it to be a very small thing -- hardly worth lying to your kids and establishing a relationship of distrust. Am I over-dramatizing things by calling it that? I don’t think so.

Once your child knows that mommy and daddy are willing to lie about some things, there are two necessary repercussions. The first is that they will have some level of doubt about the purity of your motives and of your veracity. They will wonder why you lied to them. It’s good to question authority, but even better to find that your early authority figures are worthy of your trust. Of equal concern is that they will forever be able to justify their own prevarication based on your example. Kids will rebel if you feed them the ammo.

This really is a larger issue than Santa Claus. Lying to your kids about anything is a bad idea. But Santa is a common first misstep. An easy one to avoid.

As part of my research for this writeup, I encountered a coworker who told me “other parents will be angry when your child informs their children that Santa doesn’t exist.” She had grave misgivings about my lack of deceit at home based primarily on this effect that it might have on others. I hope it seems reasonable that I was not swayed. I don’t lie to my kids at all. But I’m especially not willing do so simply to make the lies of my neighbors easier.

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