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Santa Claus through the Ages
By Paisley Hibou
Now that several suns have set since Christmas day and the Christmas season has officially bowed off the calendar scene with Epiphany's end, it's time to unveil the truth: Santa Claus is a myth. Of course you always suspected that since you turned a certain age, but you may be less familiar with the history of good ol' Saint Nick, the man who inspired the many interpretations of Santa Claus humanity loves today. There's also probably a lot more you don't know about Santa Claus and since I have several hundred words left to kill in this article, I might as well expand your Santa knowledge in other capacities, too.
Saint Nicholas, also known as the Patron Saint of Giving, Nikolaos of Myra, and Nikolaos the Wonderworker, was born in the ancient Greek city of Patara. Born in the third century, Saint Nicholas was raised to be a pious Christian by wealthy parents who died of plague during Saint Nicholas' childhood. As a young man, Saint Nicholas donated his entire inheritance to the needy. He became Bishop of Myra at a young age and was later exiled by Roman Emperor Diocletian for his Christian faith.
Throughout his life, Saint Nicholas became famous for his generosity, whether that meant bringing murdered innocents back to life, giving poor girls dowries, or performing smaller deeds. Sometimes, for instance, he'd drop gold coins in children's shoes while they slept for no other reason than to make the children happy. Saint Nicholas always insisted on secrecy, never wanting recognition for his goodness.
When the Christian Roman Empire attempted to Christianize Germanic tribes starting in the 4th century, they brought the story of Saint Nicholas (and many other saints, of course) with them. Over the years, as Germanic and Christian cultures intertwined, stories of the Germanic god Odin gradually influenced the story of Saint Nicholas, just as pagan winter solstice traditions influenced celebrations connected to the birth of Christ. To vastly simplify the history, this mixing of mythologies eventually produced Santa Claus.
Although primarily celebrated by Western cultures, today Santa enjoys multiple incarnations across the globe. First off, there is the matter of Santa Claus' name.
In French-speaking countries, Santa's called Père Noël and in Spanish-speaking ones, Papá Noel. In Italy, he's named Babbo Natale. The Polish call him Swiety Mikolaj.
While Santa's Western names often translate to some approximation of “Father Christmas” or “Saint Nicholas,” his Eastern names sometimes carry a different meaning. The Japanese called him Hoteiosho, which translates to “a god or priest who bears gifts.” The Chinese call him Dun Che Lao Ren, which means “Christmas Old Man.”
There are, however, exceptions to the Western rule. In Norway, Santa's name, Julenissen, translates to “Christmas gnome.” The Russian's name for Santa, Ded Moroz, means “Grandfather Frost.” In Sweden, Santa's called Jultomten, which means “Christmas brownie.” In Germany, people call him Weihnactsmann, meaning “Christmas man.”
Santa's name isn't the only thing that changes from country to country or at least region to region. His appearance does, too. In some places, he more closely resembles Saint Nicholas—Greek and willowly—and he wears a bishop's robes. In some places, Santa is gnome-like, yet in others he's human-sized and at least slightly overweight. He may wear a red and white ensemble, yet there are plenty of depictions of Santa in blue, green, white, or even gold.
Worldwide, people laude Santa for being a bringer of gifts. But Santa apparently has different methods of gift-giving in different countries. The children of Belgium, for instance, think Santa comes to them riding a horse. Children leave hay, carrots, and water for Santa's horse just outside their homes. In France, children put their shoes by the fireplace. Le Père Fouettard, known as The Whipping Father, accompanies Santa, giving lumps of coal and whiplashes to naughty children, while Santa rewards the good children with gifts. In Switzerland, children believe that the Christ Child brings them gifts and Saint Nicholas serves as his assistant.
In Spain and Latin America, Santa Claus is more of a pop culture character than a mythological one. Spanish children believe the Wise Men bring them gifts, so they put their shoes on their windowsills and fill them with feed for the Wise Men's horses.
The version of Santa embraced in the United States originated in the Netherlands and came to America via early Dutch settlers in the 17th century. The settlers knew Santa as Sinterklaas. But the vision of Santa imported by the Dutch has evolved over the centuries, just as Santa has everywhere. The modern American Santa seems to be cobbled from ideas both Christian and Pagan, Catholic and Protestant, as well as Scandinavian, German, and English. That's not to mention the influence of artists and writers.
In 1773, a New York City newspaper was the first to anglicize Sinterklaas to Santa Claus. In 1809, Santa also became the portly fellow we know him as today because of how Washington Irving depicted him in his book, A History of New York. One poem that seemed to solidify Santa's character for modern Americans is Clement C. Moore's “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (1823), colloquially known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Illustrator Thomas Nast made Santa chubbier and chubbier in his drawings for Christmas issues of Harper's Magazine in the second half of the 19th century. Some parts of the Santa myth are even more recent. An advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward Company invented Rudolph, for instance, as late as 1939. In the 1950s, Coca-a-Cola began running its famous Santa campaign, which has shaped how Americans picture Santa ever since.
In the U.S., people believe that Santa is a large man with red and white clothes and he delivers gifts thanks to the back-breaking work of his eight reindeer. These reindeer pull Santa in his magic flying sleigh, helping him travel across the world in a single night. Santa enters each child's home by going through the house's chimney. He then places gifts beneath the family Christmas tree and leaves smaller treats in the stockings hung up over the fireplace.
Regardless of what they call Santa, what they believe he looks like, or how they think he delivers gifts, children across the world write letters to Santa. Of course, many of the parents and teachers who sit down with children to help them write such letters may wonder where the letters go.
90% of the letters go to Finland, but many others go to France, Germany, and Slovakia. In certain countries, national postal operators actually take the time to answer children's letters to Santa. According to a 2007 study conducted by The Universal Postal Union, France answers more Santa letters than any other country. In 2006 alone, French postal workers replied to 1,220,000 letters.
The same study revealed that Canada Post answered children's letters in 26 languages. Since 1982, over 13,000 Canadian postal workers have replied to letters for Santa as volunteers. Canada Post even has a special postal code and address for Santa letters: Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada H0H 0H0. The UK has done the same, except that their address for Santa is: Santa Claus, Reindeer Land, SAN TA1.
In a day and age when technology is everywhere, it may surprise some adults that children still write letters to Santa, expecting them to email him instead. While email services for Santa do exist (check out EmailSanta.com), today's children continue to write Santa letters because the media they consume tells them that's the way it's done. Just think of how the myth of Santa has pervaded countless books, films, magazines and even websites. Even the hippest encourage kids to write Santa!
Whether you want to find Santa-themed media for kids or the kid in yourself, your choices are anything but paltry.
If you want books, both online and brick-and-mortar stores have you covered. Thanks to a list curated by user edmunddantes34, for example, Amazon.com has a page devoted to “The Best Santa Claus Books.” A few of the selections include The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Eric Martone, The Year Without a Santa Claus by John Manders, and Young Claus: The Legend of the Boy Who Became Santa by J. Michael Sims.
If you want movies, you have more than enough options for any Santa-obsessed cinephile. Today (January 7, 2011), a Google search for the entry “santa claus movies” yielded approximately 31,800,000 results. There's even an entire Wikipedia page titled “Santa Claus in Film,” with the earliest Santa film listed dating back to 1897.
If you want websites devoted to Santa, there are probably too many low-quality ones, but clever websites are sprinkled here and there across the Internet. One particularly unusual website is NoradSanta.org, which brands itself as a Santa tracker. During the Christmas season, the website pins down exactly where Santa and his sleigh are delivering gifts around the globe. Another online gem is StNicholasCenter.org, an entire website dedicated to the mythology of the Saint and the more modern folkloric figure.
Santa doesn't only thrive in our minds and media, however. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, you can probably find him at your local mall. Over the years, countless men, professional and amateur actors alike, have portrayed Santa Claus in real life at malls across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada (and, to a lesser extent, other countries). There are even Santa Claus schools, where actors learn how to properly portray Santa and interact with children. The oldest such school, The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, is located in Michigan and was founded in 1937. A list on the school's website says that its students shall learning the following:
• The History of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
• Proper dress and use of make-up
• Experience for radio and television interviews
• Santa Sign Language
• Live reindeer habits
• Practice Santa flight lessons
• And much, much more!
If you have ever fancied knowing what goes through the heads of mall Santas, more than one has written of his experiences, both in print and online.
Of my personal favorite: The Globe and Mail, one of Canada's national newspapers ran an essay on December 22, 2011 by James Di Fiore called “I Played a mall Santa Claus.” One excerpt: “The old adage is true: Kids are the toughest audience by far, unfettered by etiquette and ready to express dismay if Santa is scary, unrealistic or unwilling to promise them an iPad.” The children who crawled into Di Fiore's lap this past season apparently asked him everything from whether Santa could bring “Mommy back from heaven” to whether he ate his reindeer.
If you have a hankering for a Santa talk that doesn't take place in a mall, you might check out Santa Claus Village in the Arctic Circle. Rovaniemi, Finland is the home of Santa Claus' office and main post office, as well as a Christmas exhibition and Santa Park. Visitors can meet Santa and his elves in his office any day of the year, even Christmas. His post office, meanwhile, is full of stationery, postcards, stamps, and other mail-themed gifts. The Christmas exhibition contains Santa films and decorations from Europe, Japan, and the United States. Santa Park, as you might have guessed, is a Christmas-themed amusement park. Despite its remote location, over half a million tourists visit Santa Claus Village every year.
That is probably far more information about Santa Claus than you ever desired, but if it isn't, Google has 123,000,000 websites to peruse and your library probably has plenty of books, too. Dash away, dash away, dash away!
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