Santa Claus in Northern American culture

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For places in the United States named Santa Claus, see Santa Claus (disambiguation).
The modern portrayal of Santa Claus frequently depicts him listening to the Christmas wishes of young children.

Santa Claus (also known as Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santy or simply Santa) is a folklore figure in various cultures who distributes gifts to children, normally on Christmas Eve. Each name is a variation of Saint Nicholas, but refers to Santa Claus. In today's North American, European and worldwide celebration of Christmas, people young and old simply refer to the hero of the season as Santa, or Santa Claus.

Conventionally, Santa Claus is portrayed as a kindly, round-bellied, merry, bespectacled white man in a red coat trimmed with white fur, with a long white beard. On Christmas Eve, he rides in his sleigh pulled by flying reindeer from house to house to give presents to children. To enter the house, Santa Claus comes down the chimney and exits through the fireplace. During the rest of the year he lives together with his wife Mrs. Claus and his elves manufacturing toys. Some modern depictions of Santa (often in advertising and popular entertainment) will show the elves and Santa's workshop as more of a processing and distribution facility, ordering and receiving the toys from various toy manufacturers from across the world. According to American public opinion, Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, and works in his workshop with all his elves and Mrs Claus.

Since most activities associated with Santa Claus are extraordinary, such as delivering presents to all of the believing children in one night, how he squeezes down chimneys, how he enters homes without chimneys, and how he makes reindeer fly, magic is usually used to explain his actions.


Main article: Santa Claus

The modern Santa Claus is thought to be a composite character from the merging of quite separate figures.

Christian origins[edit]

The first of these is Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th-century Christian bishop of Myra in Lycia, a province of Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. He was born at Patara, province of Lycia, Asia Minor. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. The relics of St. Nicholas were transported to Bari in southern Italy by some enterprising Italian merchants; a basilica was constructed in 1087 to house them and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout. Saint Nicholas became revered by many as the patron saint of seamen, merchants, archers, children, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers, pawn brokers, prisoners, the city of Amsterdam and of Russia. In Greece, Saint Nicholas is sometimes substituted for Saint Basil (Vasilis in Greek), a 4th-century bishop from Caesarea. Also, a few villages in West Flanders, Belgium, celebrate a near identical figure, Sint-Maarten (Saint Martin of Tours).[1]

Germanic folklore[edit]

Prior to the Germanic peoples' conversion to Christianity, Germanic folklore contained stories about the god Odin (Wodan), who would each year, at Yule, have a great hunting party accompanied by his fellow gods and the fallen warriors residing in his realm. Children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw or sugar, near the chimney for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy. (Note that the Sleipnir has eight legs, corresponding to Santa's eight reindeer.) This practice survived in Belgium and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas. Children still place their straw filled shoes at the chimney every winter night, and Saint Nicholas (who, unlike Santa, is still riding a horse) rewards them with candy and gifts. Odin's appearance was often similar to that of Saint Nicholas, being depicted as an old, mysterious man with a beard. (Other features, like the absence of one eye, are not found in Saint Nicholas.) This practice in turn came to the United States via the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, New York and New York City prior to the British seizure in the 17th century,[citation needed] and evolved into the hanging of socks or stockings at the fireplace.

Another early folk tale, originating among the Germanic tribes, tells of a holy man (sometimes Saint Nicholas), and a demon (sometimes the Devil, Krampus, or a troll). The story states that the land was terrorized by a monster who at night would slither down the chimneys and slaughter children (disembowelling them or stuffing them up the flue, or keeping them in a sack to eat later). The holy man sought out the demon, and tricked it with blessed or magical shackles (in some versions the same shackles that imprisoned Christ prior to the crucifixion, in other versions the shackles were those used to hold St. Peter or Paul of Tarsus); the demon was trapped and forced to obey the saint's orders. The saint ordered him to go to each house and make amends, by delivering gifts to the children. Depending on the version, the saint either made the demon fulfill this task every year, or the demon was so disgusted by the act of good will that it chose to be sent back to Hell. Yet other versions have the demon reform under the saint's orders, and go on to recruit other elves and imps into helping him, thus becoming Santa Claus. In an alternate Dutch version, the saint is aided by Moorish slaves, commonly typified as Zwarte Piet ("Black Peter"). Some tales depict Zwarte Piet beating bad children with a rod or even taking them to Spain (formerly ruled by the Moors) in a sack.

Another form of the above tale in Germany is of the Pelznickel or Belsnickle ("Furry Nicholas") who visited naughty children in their sleep. The name originated from the fact that the person appeared to be a huge beast since he was covered from head to toe in furs.

Modern origins[edit]

The Ghost of Christmas Present, a colorized version of the original illustration by John Leech made for Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol (1843).

Pre-modern representations of the gift-giver from church history and folklore merged with the British character Father Christmas to create the character known to Britons and Americans as Santa Claus. Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain, and pictures of him survive from that era, portraying him as a well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and was reflected in the "Ghost of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

The name Santa Claus is derived from Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for the mythical character based on St. Nicholas. He is also known there by the name of Sint Nicolaas which explains the use of the two fairly dissimilar names Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas or St. Nick.

Sinterklaas wears clothing similar to a bishop's. He wears a red miter (a liturgical headdress worn by bishops and abbots) with a "golden" cross and carries a bishop's staff. The connection with the original bishop of Myra is still evident here. He rides a white horse over rooftops and his helpers climb down chimneys to deposit gifts (sometimes in children's shoes by the fireplace). Sinterklaas arrives from Spain on a steamboat and is accompanied by his assistant Zwarte Piet.

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Perhaps an evolved version of the Swedish Tomte.

Presents given during this feast are often accompanied by poems, sometimes fairly basic, sometimes quite elaborate pieces of art that mock events in the past year relating to the recipient (who is thus at the receiving end in more than one sense). The gifts themselves may be just an excuse for the wrapping, which can also be quite elaborate. The more serious gifts may be reserved for the next morning. Since the giving of presents is Sinterklaas's job presents are traditionally not given at Christmas in the Netherlands, but commercialism is starting to tap into this market.

In other countries, the figure of Saint Nicholas was also blended with local folklore. As an example of the still surviving pagan imagery, in Nordic countries there is the Yule Goat (Swedish julbock), a somewhat startling figure with horns which will deliver the presents on Christmas Eve, and a straw goat is a common Christmas decoration. Later, in Sweden and Norway, the gift bringer was seen as identical with the Tomte, or tomtenisse, another folklore creature. In Finland, the Yule goat is joulupukki.

American origins[edit]

Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus with an illustration for the January 3, 1863, issue of Harper's Weekly. This image appeared as a small part of a larger illustration titled "A Christmas Furlough" in which Nast set aside his regular news and political coverage to do a Santa Claus drawing. This Santa was a man dressed up handing out gifts to Union Army soldiers.

In the British colonies of North America and later the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. For example, in Washington Irving's History of New York, Sinterklaas was Americanized into "Santa Claus" but lost his bishop's apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. Irving's book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention.

Modern ideas of Santa Claus seemingly became canon after the publication of the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas") in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823. The poem is ascribed to Clement Clarke Moore, although there is some question as to his authorship. In this poem Santa is established as a heavyset individual with eight reindeer (who are named for the first time). Santa Claus later appeared in various colored costumes as he gradually became amalgamated with the figure of Father Christmas, but red soon became popular after he appeared wearing such on an 1885 Christmas card. Still, one of the first artists to capture Santa Claus's image as we know him today was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. In 1863, a picture of Santa illustrated by Nast appeared in Harper's Weekly (it is believed the inspiration for his image came from the Belsnickel). Another popularization came in 1902 in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Baum's Santa later appears in The Road to Oz as a guest on Princess Ozma's birthday, where he is described as so famous and beloved that every single person present stood up and bowed even before he was officially introduced.

Images of Santa Claus were further cemented through Haddon Sundblom's depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company's Christmas advertising. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was in fact invented by Coca-Cola. Nevertheless, Santa Claus and Coca-Cola have been closely associated, except for 2005 when Santa was replaced in advertising by Coca-Cola's polar bears.

The image of Santa Claus as a benevolent character became reinforced with its association with charity and philanthropy, particularly organizations such as the Salvation Army. Volunteers dressed as Santa Claus typically became part of fundraising drives to aid needy families at Christmas time.

Some suspect that the depiction of Santa at the North Pole reflected popular opinion about industry at the time. In some images of the early 20th century, Santa was depicted as personally making his toys by hand in a small workshop like a craftsman.

A man dressed up as Santa Claus fundraising for Volunteers of America on the sidewalk of street in Chicago, Illinois, in 1902. He is wearing a mask with a beard attached. DN-0001069, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society.

Eventually, the idea emerged that he had numerous elves responsible for making the toys, but the toys were still handmade by each individual elf working in the traditional manner. By the end of the 20th century, the reality of mass mechanized production became more fully accepted by the Western public. That shift was reflected in the modern depiction of Santa's residence—now often humorously portrayed as a fully mechanized production facility, equipped with the latest manufacturing technology, and overseen by the elves with Santa and Mrs. Claus as managers [see Nissenbaum, chap. 2; Belk, 87–100]. Many television commercials depict this as a sort of humorous business, with Santa's elves acting as a sometimes mischievously disgruntled workforce, cracking jokes and pulling pranks on their boss. Santa Claus continues to inspire writers and artists, such as in author Seabury Quinn's 1948 novel Roads. Other additions to early ideas of Santa include Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the ninth reindeer immortalized in a Gene Autry song, written by a Montgomery Ward copywriter. Adding even more to the legend, a current popular comic book series Jingle Belle by writer/cartoonist Paul Dini depicts Santa Claus as a harried father with a rebellious half-human, half-elf teenage daughter.


Cover to the sheet music for "Santa Claus Galop" (1874) by composer Charles Kinkel.

Over the years, Santa Claus has inspired several songs and even orchestral works. As early as 1853, Louis Antoine Jullien composed an orchestral piece titled Santa Claus which premiered to mixed reviews in New York that year [Horowitz, 213]. More popular, well-known songs about Santa Claus (mostly sung by children) include:

Video games[edit]

  • In Saints Row IV How the Saints Saved Christmas DLC, Santa Claus is real and exists in the games universe and was capture by the alien overlord Zinyak and held in the simulation for decades being tormented by his evil doppelganger Clawz. Future Shaundi (Shaundi from a future were Clawz has taken over Santa's body and the world by turned the world's children into his army of brainwashed slaves) travels back in time and warns the Saints of the threat and together with the Saints Boss the two rescue a weakened Santa from a 1950s Christmas simulation. With Santa's help they manage to reawaken Christmas cheer in that simulation and manage to defeat Clawz though he escapes when the Boss tries to finish him off in a gruesome fashion, unaware Clawz thrives on Naughty deeds. They then journey to the North Pole where Santa discovers to his horror that Clawz has killed his reindeer and placed their heads on spikes and replacing them with his own robotic reindeer. Clawz also turned Santa's most trusted elf Twinkle and a number of his elves against him and transformed them into "giant elves" (elves the size of normal humans). Santa and the Protagonist manage to get inside Santa's main office and find Mrs. Claus (whose name is revealed to be Mary) and a small army of elves still loyal to Santa protecting the "North Pole" (which is revealed to be a weapon) from Clawz and his minions. They manage to drive off Clawz and save the workshop and the North Pole from Clawz. Returning to Steelport via Santa's Sleigh, the Boss helps Santa deliver presents to nice and coal to the naughty in order to weaken the shield protecting Clawz. After taking down his shield, a transformed Clawz battles the Boss, Future Shaundi, Santa, and Mrs. Claus. He is finally defeat by the Boss who punches Clawz into the star and impaled. Afterward Santa tells the Boss they can't murder their way onto the nice list, but says there is still time for them to learn the true meaning of Christmas. Santa then rides of in his sleigh pulled by his reindeer which have somehow magically returned to life. Later he is shown waking up alone on a Zin ship (having escaped the simulation), naked save for his hat. After the DLC is comepleted Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Clawz are unlocked as homies with Santa himself being a super-powered homie. Santa is portrayed as the wise and joy old elf most people are familiar with though he is willing to fight to save Christmas. He doesn't consider swearing to be naughty stating "Naughty words are not Naughty deeds" although he himself doesn't swear.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: St. Nicholas of Myra

Sources and Further reading[edit]

  • "Bad Disney". Washington Times. November 21, 2003.
  • Barnard, Eunice Fuller. "Santa Claus Claimed as a Real New Yorker." New York Times. December 19, 1926.
  • Baum, L. Frank. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. 1902; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1986. ISBN 0-451-52064-5
  • Belk, Russel W. "A Child's Christmas in America: Santa Claus as Deity, Consumption as Religion." Journal of American Culture, 10, no. 1 (Spring 1987), pp. 87–100.
  • "Christmas Customs—Are They Christian?". The Watchtower (New York). December 15, 2000.
  • Clar, Mimi. "Attack on Santa Claus." Western Folklore, 18, no. 4 (October 1959), p. 337.
  • Clark, Cindy Dell. Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children's Myths in Contemporary America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. ISBN 0-226-10778-7
  • "The Claus That Refreshes" at
  • "The Devil Is In Your Chimney!" at
  • Flynn, Tom. The Trouble with Christmas. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993. ISBN 0-87975-848-1
  • Gavenas, Mary Lisa. "The man in the red suit", at, December 23, 2006. (focuses on Macy's Dept. Store)
  • Horowitz, Joseph. Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. ISBN 0-393-05717-8
  • King, Josiah. The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas; Together with his Clearing by the Jury ... London: Charles Brome, 1686. Full text available here
  • Lalumia, Christine. "The restrained restoration of Christmas". In the Ten Ages of Christmas at
  • Moore, Clement Clarke. "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel. December 23, 1823.
  • Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. ISBN 0-679-41223-9
  • Otnes, Cele, Kyungseung Kim, and Young Chan Kim. "Yes, Virginia, There is a Gender Difference: Analyzing Children's Requests to Santa Claus." Journal of Popular Culture, 28, no. 1 (Summer 1994), pp. 17–29.
  • Ott, Jonathan. Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History. Kennewick, Wash.: Natural Products Company, 1993. ISBN 0-9614234-9-8
  • Plath, David W. "The Japanese Popular Christmas: Coping with Modernity." American Journal of Folklore, 76, no. 302 (October–December 1963), pp. 309–317.
  • Potter, Alicia. "Celluloid Santas" at
  • Quinn, Seabury. Roads. 1948; facsimile reprint, Mohegan Lake, N.Y.: Red Jacket Press, 2005. ISBN 0-9748895-8-X
  • "St. Nicholas of Myra" in the Catholic Encyclopedia at
  • Sedaris, David. The Santaland Diaries and Seasons Greetings: Two Plays. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1998. ISBN 0-8222-1631-0
  • Shenkman, Richard. Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History. New York: HarperCollins, 1988. ISBN 0-06-097261-0
  • Siefker, Phyillis. Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996. ISBN 0-7864-0246-6
  • Twitchell, James B. Twenty Ads that Shook the World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2000. ISBN 0-609-60563-1
  • "Why Track Him?" at

External links[edit]