The history and origin of Santa Claus


THE story of St Nic, his red suit, his reindeer and little helpers

SO just who is that fat, old jolly guy in the red suit that parades around shopping malls at Christmas time – entertaining kids and scaring adults with his “ho ho hos”? It’s usually someone’s dad – the one (in any community of close friends) with the biggest beer boep.

I caught on early that Santa was my dad and that the whole thing was a scam. The biggest tip-off was the request for brandy or schnapps to left by the tree at night rather than the more traditional milk and cookies. This was suspect, as the order was giving by my mother and my father enjoys his schnapps and brandy and never drinks milk.

Poetic beginnings
Much of the present form of the Santa story is undoubtedly due to the works of Clement Clark Moore and the cartoons of 19th century American cartoonist Thomas Nast. In 1822, Dr. Moore from New York wrote a Christmas poem titled A visit from St. Nicholas (also know as The Night Before Christmas) to read out to his children on Christmas Eve. Here’s a little extract:

Santa enjoying a bit of pipeweedA depiction of Santa by Thomas Nast

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

The story behind the red and white suit
Images of Santa Claus were further popularised through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was in fact invented by Coca-Cola, or that Santa wears red and white because they are the Coca-Cola colors.

In reality, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilise the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising. White Rock Beverages used Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923.

Furthermore, the massive campaign by Coca-Cola simply popularised the depiction of Santa as wearing red and white, in contrast to the variety of colours he wore prior to that campaign (a popular garment being a green cloak). The colours red and white were originally given by Nast.

A brief history of St Nic
Father Christmas, who also goes under the alias of St Nicholas and Kris Kringle, has a bit of a sketchy history – predominantly attributed to legend and folklore. There is also a darker historical account that attributes some of the qualities and roles of St Nic to the pagan deities of Artemis and Poseidon.

The most plausible story of Saint Nicholas as an actual human figure dates back to 4th century Myra – a southwest port of modern day Turkey. The legend goes that Nicholas was a bishop that took pity on a poverty-stricken family with three daughters, who faced the threat of being forced into prostitution because they had no wedding dowries.

An early depiction of St Nic

To save the girls from this fate, St. Nic tosses two bags of gold through an open window of their house at night and a third one down the family’s chimney (which apparently lands in a stocking that had being hung near the fireplace to dry).

This is considered as the basis of the belief of Saint Nicholas as a loving gift-giver, and is believed to be the beginning of the tradition of hanging stocking near the fireplace at Christmas.

Santa’s little helpers
You can imagine the amount of slave-labour required to make millions of toys each year for all the good little boys and girls. Santa traditionally makes efficient use of child-labour in the form of little elves – popularised by fictional texts such as “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

However, up until the Second World War, it was believed that Saint Nicholas was only helped by one servant. One relatively modern story is that Saint Nicholas liberated an Ethiopian slave boy called ‘Piter’ (from Saint Peter) from a Myra market, who was so gracious he decided to stay with Saint Nic as a helper.

At the end of the war, when the Canadians liberated the Netherlands in 1945, they reinstated the celebrations of Sinterklaas for the children. Unaware of the traditions, the Canadians thought that if one Zwarte Piet was fun, several Zwarte Pieten would be even more fun. Ever since, Saint Nicolas is helped by a group of Zwarte Pieten (i.e. little black Ethiopian slave boys).

Yet with the influx of immigrants to the Netherlands starting in the late 1950s, this story is felt by some to be racist. Today, Zwarte Piet have become modern servants, who have black faces because they climb through chimneys, causing their skin to become blackened by soot.

Santa’s reindeer
The commonly cited names of Santa’s reindeer are also based on those used in Nast’s 1823 poem, which is arguably the basis of reindeer’s popularity as Christmas symbols. However, Santa did have a favourite – his red-nosed ‘draw-horse’ Rudolph – who quickly became popularised by the mass media.

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeerAccording to legend, Rudolph was the son of Donder and was born with a glowing red nose, which made him a bit of a social outcast among the other reindeer. However, one Christmas eve it was too foggy for Santa to swing a cat, or to make his flight around the world and deliver pressies to the masses.

About to cancel Christmas, Santa suddenly noticed Rudolph’s nose, and decided it could be used as a makeshift lamp to guide his sleigh. Since then, Rudolph is said to be a permanent member of Santa’s staff, who leads them on their journey and gets extra special attention at Christmas!

  • For more information on the history and origin and Santa Claus, his reindeer, his helpers, his legend etc., here is a fantastic online resource.

Related posts:
Friday the 13th superstitions
The history and origin of Halloween
Historical truths behind old English sayings

One response to “The history and origin of Santa Claus

  1. Reindeer were also the first animal to be domesticated, and Rudolph is, in fact, a girl. This is inferred from the fact that all depictions of Rudolph show a reindeer with antlers (the males shed their antlers at Christmas time). These are the things I know about reindeer :)

    Merry Christmas y’all!

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