The legend of Santa Claus is widely known throughout the West and many other parts of the world. A plump man sporting a white beard and a red suit, Santa is said to bring gifts to well-behaved children on Christmas Eve, and deliver a lump of coal to those whose manners could stand to improve.
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, at one point you’ve probably wondered where the legend of Santa Claus originates from, and how the tale of a charitable man in a sled hailing from the North Pole became so closely associated with the Christian holiday. As it turns out, Santa Claus has roots in the folklore of several different European countries, and the gift-giving tradition stretches back much farther than most people realize.
Santa Claus may owe his earliest influence to Odin (also known as Wodan), a god revered by Germanic peoples in Northern Europe as early as 2 B.C.E. Odin was celebrated during Yule, a pagan holiday that took place midwinter. During this time, Odin was said to lead the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.
Like many other pagan holidays that later merged with early Christian traditions, elements of Yule influenced the celebration of Christmas, to the extent that the word “Yuletide” is now synonymous with the Christmas season. Examples of Yuletide traditions that merged with Christmas include the Yule log and singing door-to-door.
It’s unclear to what extent Odin in particular has had an effect on Christmas. But as a bearded, cloaked man who traveled through the winter night sky, Odin undoubtedly bears similarities to Santa Claus, sparking speculation that the god was an early pagan influence on the modern-day mythical figure.
However, many elements of Santa Claus, especially his reputation as a secret giver of gifts, can be more concretely traced back to Saint Nicholas, a real historical figure. This 4th-century Christian bishop was of Greek descent and lived in the city of Myra (now located in modern-day Turkey), where he was known for his generosity. By the Middle Ages, a tradition had been established in which many European Christian children were left gifts on the evening of December 5, allowing them to wake up and open their presents in honor of Saint Nicholas’s feast day on December 6.
The legend of Saint Nicholas became further mythologized in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and northern France, where he was known as Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas was said to have a long white beard and wore a red cape over a bishop’s garment, similar to what the real Saint Nicholas would have worn. He also carried a big red book full of children’s names, listing whether each had been naughty or nice that year.
The celebration of Saint Nicholas evolved once more during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, which heralded a split from the Roman Catholic Church. During this time, Martin Luther discouraged the veneration of saints to prevent them from gaining a cult-like following.
The feast of Saint Nicholas was swept up in these changes, and the clergy urged Protestant parents to give gifts on Christmas Eve instead, to more closely associate the practice with Jesus’s birth. Although many complied with the new date, Saint Nicholas and the Dutch Sinterklaas remained the face of the gift-giving tradition among Christians of various denominations.
While Sinterklaas and Saint Nicholas continued to play a pivotal role in Christmas celebrations in various areas of Europe, England eventually discarded the tradition in favor of Father Christmas, the personification of holiday cheer. A bearded reveler who brought gifts to children, references to Father Christmas appeared as early as the 15th century.
When the North American British colonies were established in the 17th and 18th centuries, European immigrants brought tales about Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Father Christmas from their own respective countries, and the stories from the Old World eventually began to merge together. The Dutch word Sinterklaas was Anglicized as Santa Claus as early as 1773, and the American Santa began to take on a life of his own.
Santa Claus was variously described in books such as Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809) and the poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, published in an 1821 collection. But it was the publication of the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also commonly known as “'Twas the Night Before Christmas”) that made certain elements of Santa canon in American lore. From this point onward, he was decidedly a plump, jolly man in a red suit who rode a sled drawn by reindeer and slid down chimneys to deliver toys to well-behaved children.
Santa Claus made his way back overseas to England, Ireland, and Scotland by the 1850s, where he and Father Christmas became one and the same. The myth also superseded many traditions associated with Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas in other parts of Europe.
As time went on, books, newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and films reinforced Santa’s popularity in the United States and elsewhere, with the cheerful character eventually becoming ubiquitous in countries where Christmas is celebrated by a significant portion of the population. Those who are interested in his origins will find that Santa Claus has a rich cultural history that evolved throughout the centuries to become the charming tale that it is today.
Featured image of 1907 Christmas postcard: Wikipedia