By Tobi Onuoha
Every year children wake up on December 25 and run straight to the Christmas tree to see what Santa has brought for them. But who is Santa Claus and the man who inspired the legend?
Santa Claus is in fact inspired by a Turkish bishop named Saint Nicholas who was a saint renowned for the many miracles he performed, which involved helping unmarried girls, orphaned children and the poor. After he was made a saint he was given a day to feast (December 6), which is a date still celebrated in many countries, such as here in Hungary when Mikulás fills children’s boots with chocolates and oranges. Incidentally, those children who are bad receive a stick or a branch while they sleep on the night of December 5.
In the meantime, the Church wanted to create a day of celebration for the birth of Christ and chose December 25. There is little or no evidence that ties Jesus’ birth to December and many scholars have estimated it to have been more likely around June. However, the Pope chose the date to coincide with existing midwinter festivals in order to increase its popularity.
The closeness in dates between Saint Nicholas’ feast day and the birth of Christ was the start of the association between the two holidays and children began to leave treats out to welcome him into their homes.
So how did Saint Nicholas become Santa Claus you may ask? In Holland he was referred to as Sinter Klass and after the colonisation of North America, this would eventually become “Santa Claus”. There are many other aspects of the modern day Santa Claus that are attributed to many different causes. First of all; Santa Claus did not always wear red and in different pictures he wore different colours. Then, in the 1940s, Coca Cola began releasing many popular adverts featuring an old, sweet and rather large man with a thick white beard, wearing a red suit with white trimmings. This image of Santa Claus spread like wildfire and now very few people are aware that Santa’s outfit is in fact just a very successful marketing scheme.
The next is where did Santa’s reindeer come from? It is said that the original Saint Nicholas rode a horse, but it is still a million miles from the current Santa who soars through the sky with his flying reindeer. It is most commonly said that the reindeer came from a poem written by William Gilley in 1812, in which he talks about Santa and how “his reindeer drives this frosty night”. Today’s legend of Santa Claus is most likely derived from this.
Another interesting subject is the tradition whereby Santa Claus climbs down people’s chimneys into their living rooms. This most likely originates from the myth that Saint Nicholas would throw coins in through windows and, when the windows were closed, down people’s chimneys. The image of a large Santa Claus squeezing into a chimney is a rather common image now.
Last but not least; Saint Nicholas was from Turkey so how did he end up in the North Pole with elves as helpers and a large toy factory? This aspect is still largely debated but legend has it that this is the story parents told children to avoid questions like “where does Santa come from?” and “what does he do when it’s not Christmas?” Another theory on this subject is that in the 19th century, an artist named Thomas Nast did a series of drawings for a newspaper where Santa Claus was in the North Pole, but it is questionable whether this was before or after children were already being told of Santa living in the North Pole. The elves, on the other hand, have a story of their own and are said to have come from a book written by Louisa May Alcott in 1850, which was never actually published, and was to be named “Christmas Elves”.
The original Saint Nicholas is not remembered by many people anymore and few know where the legend of Santa Claus comes from, yet every year he is still celebrated. The legend of Santa Claus can be compared to so many other symbolic figures that have lost their meaning, such as the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy. Luckily, the story and legend of Santa Claus is a well-documented one and if one chooses to they can find a lot of interesting information about Saint Nicholas and his miracles online or in books.