Sophie Jackson is a freelance writer and author of The Medieval Christmas.
Who Is Santa Claus?
Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, is the iconic figure of the festive season. Everyone knows what Santa Claus looks like—a jolly, fat man in a red suit with a white beard—and everyone knows what he does—delivering presents about the world—but few know about Santa Claus' historic origins, his association with ancient myths and legends, and the dark secrets in the jolly man's past.
A form of Santa Claus has existed since early medieval times, but his appearance and habits have changed considerably over the centuries. If you ever wondered if there was more to the man in red than mince pies and reindeer, it's time to read on.
Little-Known Facts About Santa Claus
- He May Be Based on a Viking God or a Christian Bishop
- He Never Used to Have Reindeer
- He Punished the Bad
- His Helpers Weren't Always Elves
- Coca-Cola Did Not Invent the Modern Santa
1. He May Be Based on a Viking God or a Christian Bishop
Is Santa Really Odin?
There are a number of theories about Santa Claus' origins. One that has gained popularity in recent years is that Santa Claus is really the Viking god Odin (known as Wodan to the Anglo Saxons). Odin was a complicated god being associated with wisdom and poetry, as well as death, warfare and the gallows. He sacrificed an eye to gain the wisdom of the world.
The pagan Vikings and Anglo Saxons did not have Christmas (which is a Christian festival) but still celebrated midwinter as Yuletide. During this time many weird and wonderful things were believed to occur. A massive phantom hunting party was thought to fly through the sky, led by Odin wearing his blue cloak and with his long white beard. He would ride his grey horse with eight legs and bring gifts to his followers.
Odin clearly has a lot of similarities to Santa Claus (the beard, the bringing of gifts, the magical night-time ride through the sky in midwinter). When Christianity began to replace paganism and the old gods, Odin did not entirely disappear, instead, some of his legendary habits became associated with a Christian saint who, in turn, became linked to the Christmas season.
Or Is He Saint Nicholas?
Saint Nicholas lived during the fourth century AD in the ancient Greek city of Myra. We don't know much about Nicholas except that he was a Christian bishop whose feast day is celebrated on 6 December. He is supposed to have miraculously resurrected three boys who had been murdered by a butcher intent on selling their pickled flesh as pork. A less fantastical legend tells how he saved three sisters from having to work as prostitutes by secretly delivering bags of gold to their home (in some versions he dropped the bags down a chimney).
Nicholas not only has clear parallels with Santa Claus but also with Odin. He is the patron saint and protector of children, he brings gifts, his feast day is celebrated in December and he is usually portrayed with a white beard. During the middle ages, gifts were given to children on St. Nicholas Day, rather than Christmas Day. It was only during the sixteenth century that the giving of gifts was transferred to 25 December as a way of honouring Christ's birth.
Many old images of Santa Claus depict him as a bishop and without his iconic red-suit. It is only in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries that we have removed the religious aspect of his appearance and turned Santa Claus into a secular figure.
2. He Never Used to Have Reindeer
Odin and St. Nicholas were always portrayed riding horses, yet today we associate Santa Claus with reindeer. The first time Santa Claus is portrayed as having a sleigh pulled by reindeer is in an anonymous poem called 'Old Santeclaus with Much Delight', published in New York in 1821. The poem itself does not mention reindeer, however, an illustration that accompanied the verse shows a sleigh being pulled by a single reindeer.
Two years later, in 1823, Clement C. Moore published his now famous poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' in America. Moore's work has been credited for creating the modern Santa Claus legend. He mentions St. Nick (he does not refer to him as Santa Claus) driving a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and names each one—Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem.
The last two names were the Dutch words for thunder and lightning. In a later version of the poem, they were changed to the German words 'Donder' and 'Blitzen'. Today we spell Donder as Donner, which is the modern German word for thunder.
What About Rudolph?
It was Moore who gave Santa his reindeer and the idea has stuck ever since. He did not, however, create Rudolph.
Rudolph the Reindeer was invented in 1939 by Robert L. May, another American. Rudolph appeared in a poem in an illustrated booklet for the Montgomery Ward department store. The song 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' did not appear until 1949. Rudolph was definitely a late-comer to Santa's stables!
3. He Punished the Bad
We might talk about Santa having a 'naughty or nice' list as a way of getting children to behave during the festive period, but it is not a threat most take seriously. That was not always the case.
We have to remember that Santa is based on a violent war god who was not opposed to punishing the wicked. For most of his history, Santa brought gifts to the good and punishment to the bad.
In 'Old Santeclaus with Much Delight' (1821). this is explicitly mentioned:
But where I found the children naughty,
In manners crude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,
I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of GOD
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.
From a Birch Rod to a Lump of Coal
Many old images of Santa portray him carrying a birch ready to punish the wicked. In earlier centuries this punishment was not exclusive to children, adults who had fallen foul of their neighbours would be accosted and punished at Yuletide as a form of community retribution. They would be beaten and assaulted, the damage-dealers fearing no consequences as this was the time when such things were overlooked.
Over the centuries this vigilantism was gradually eradicated and by the Twentieth century, the worst punishment anyone might expect from Santa might be a lump of coal in their stocking instead of a present. Today we do not expect Santa to cause harm, his 'naughty or nice' list is all that remains of a once very violent aspect of jolly old Santa.
4. His Helpers Weren't Always Elves
We are used to seeing Santa accompanied by elves who serve to assist him in delivering presents. In the past, these friendly elves were much more sinister. They were demons often chained to Santa (then St. Nicholas), who would jump and leap beside him, terrorising people. Occasionally, the Devil himself would join Santa.
In the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for someone to dress up as St. Nicholas and for a second person to dress as the demon. They would walk down the streets, St. Nicholas bestowing gifts, while the demon would lunge at people, maybe flailing a birch or whip. This demon was supposed to be there to punish wrongdoers, but liberties were often taken, with the 'demon' molesting whoever caught his fancy.
As St. Nicholas was transformed into Santa (Father Christmas in Britain) so his demon helper was removed. Santa now bestowed rewards and punishments himself. However, in Europe, the demon remains a traditional part of the festive period. Most famous of these demon helpers is the Krampus, half-man, half-goat, a sinister figure hovering behind St. Nicholas (who is still the traditional figure of Christmas for many Europeans). The Krampus looks like something more suited to Halloween than Christmas and he is used to scared children, though often in a light-hearted fashion.
In parts of Switzerland, Father Christmas is accompanied by the Schmutzli, who spanks naughty children with a birch rod.
Black Peter: A Controversial Figure
A nicer helper is Black Peter, who is found in the Low Countries. He was created in 1850 by a schoolteacher from Amsterdam. Black Peter was originally meant to be a Moor from Spain, who accompanies St. Nicholas to give sweets to children.
Black Peter has become a controversial figure in modern times because he is often portrayed by a white person in black make-up. Some believe he is a racist figure with echoes of slavery. However, a 2013 survey found that 90% of the Dutch population did not feel there was anything wrong with the character.
5. Coca-Cola Did Not Invent the Modern Santa
One of the frequently retold stories about Santa is that he did not become a jolly, fat man in a red suit until Coca-Cola used him in their 1930s Christmas advertising campaigns. While there is no doubt Coca-Cola was hugely influential in formalising our modern idea of what Santa should look like, even they admit they did not create his iconic appearance.
Coca-Cola first started using Santa in their Christmas adverts in the 1920s. They based his appearance on the work of American Thomas Nast, who first drew Santa for Harper's Weekly in 1862. Over the next thirty years, he drew many images of Santa and regularly portrayed him in a red coat.
Haddon Sundblom's Paintings
In 1931, Haddon Sundblom was commissioned by Coca-Cola to draw Santa. he based his work on Clement C. Moore's poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' and painted Santa in a red suit, not because it was the colour of the Coca-Cola brand, but because it was already a traditional colour for Santa's clothes.
Sundblom's paintings were extremely popular and he would continue to produce them until 1964. The images went across the world as part of Coca-Cola's global brand and today we are all familiar with them. The idea that this is where Santa sprang from might seem obvious, but it is actually not the case. Coca-Cola state that they only helped to shape the image of Santa.
One thing is plain, however, the idea of a red-suited Santa is now a mainstay of Christmas. Whatever strange and sinister skeletons lie in Santa's past, today he is a figure representing joy, friendship, generosity and happiness. All things that are truly symbolic of Christmas.
Sophie Jackson (author) from Suffolk, England on November 13, 2018:
It does make you stop and think! Glad you found it interesting!
Rose Dean from Georgia, USA on November 08, 2018:
Wow, Santa is a lot scarier than I thought! This puts a whole new meaning to the lyrics from "Santa Clause is Coming to Town"