Santa Claus:  Who Is He Anyway?

Santa is Over 1700 Years Old!

There are many stories of how the legend of Santa Claus began. The historical stories and legends that surround Santa Claus have slowly grown and developed year after year, through century after century, to create the character we all know and love today. Here are some of them I've found.

Poland

Polish Santa

The star is a Christmas symbol in Poland. On Dec. 24th, the first star shining in the sky announces that the Advent fast is over, and an extra place is set at the dinner table in honor of the Christ child. After feasting, Star Man arrives in a long robe which is decorated with stars. He carries a long pole with a lantern shaped like a star mounted to the top to light the way. Good children are rewarded with candy, fruit and small presents. In addition to Star Man, on Dec. 6th. St. Nicholas also delivers presents. Christmas trees are decorated with fruit, cookies, ornaments of cut paper, and decorated eggs. 

Thank you Patty (from Mountain Elves) for sharing your research with me.


Turkey 

"Saint Nicholas"

According to the legends Santa Claus was first known in the third century in  a town in Turkey.   Nicholas was born into a Christian family. Throughout his early years it became evident that Nicholas would live a religious and holy life and he served his local community by becoming their priest. 

During his time as the Bishop of Mira, Nicholas developed a reputation as a protector of the innocent, always generous to those in trouble.  Once upon  discovering that one of his neighbors was unable to supply his daughter with a dowry, Nicholas made him a gift of gold coins which he hid inside a stocking and anonymously pushed through an open window, thus our tradition of filling stockings with gifts.  This kindness was followed by further gifts to others in need. 

His fame spread rapidly in Middle Ages and thousands of churches are dedicated to him.   As protector of the faith he staunchly defended the Divinity and was called upon by all those in trouble for protection, becoming Saint Nicholas, the Patron Saint of children.  He has been the patron saint of Russia, Moscow, Greece, children, sailors, prisoners, bakers, pawnbrokers, shopkeepers and wolves. 

Countless of legends are told about this man within both Western and Eastern churches. He was born in the city of Patara, and traveled to Palestine and Egypt when young. He was imprisoned during persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian but released later by Emperor Constantine. He attended the first council of Nicaea in 325. 

Nicholas died December 6th 343 and his body became a holy relic which was
much sought after. During the Crusades in 1082 sailors removed the body to Italy and his remains are in the basilica of St. Nicola. The Italian people were proud to be associated with the legend of St. Nicholas and staged an annual festival to celebrate the arrival of such a great figure. By the time of the Middle Ages Nicholas was one of the most well known of the Patron saints. 

St. Nicholas Day, December 6th, was outlawed because Luther believed the almost godlike status he had achieved was inappropriate. However, Luther realized there was much that was good in the popular image of the saint.  He therefore introduced the idea of celebrating the birth of Christ and distributing gifts to children in honor of Christ's birthday, which is our custom in America. 

In many countries December 6th is still the day of Christmas gift-giving, although there is a mounting pressure everywhere to conform to the international custom of 24th/25th December. 

Through Germany, where they called him Weinachtsmann, and England where he was named Father Christmas, his legend spread all the way to America where he was called Santa Claus. He lived in their stories and fairy tales described much as we know him today; white bearded man with friendly laugh, dressed in red and traveling in his sleigh which was pulled by the reindeers at Christmas night. 


 

Finland 

"Joulupukki"

This name of Father Christmas means Yule Buck.  Old pagan traditions lived on in Finland and never faded, but gradually added a Christian flavor as in other European countries. 

The shortest days of the year are in December and pagan peoples used to have big festivities to ward of evil spirits. In Finland these spirits of darkness wore goat skins and horns. In the beginning this creature didn't give presents but demanded them or they would cause havoc. The Christmas Goat used to frighten the kids and was in every way very loathsome. 

Somehow  this personality was transformed into the benevolent Father Christmas, but nowadays the remaining feature is the name only. The process was probably a continuous amalgamation of many old folk customs and beliefs from varied sources. One can speak of a Christmas pageant tradition consisting of many personages with roles partly Christian, partly pagan: a white-bearded saint, the devil, demons, house gnomes, etc.  Nowadays the Joulupukki of Finland resembles the American Santa Claus. 

The concept of a  Santa-like costume, reindeers and Korvatunturi (Mount Ear, near Polar Circle) as its dwelling place took hold in the last century.  Because there really are reindeers in Finland, and they are in the North, the popular American figure took root in Finland very fast.  Kids customarily see Father Christmas in the act of delivering the presents (a hired Santa or Grandpa) and  the Saint asks the kids if they did behave during the year. 


 

Germany 

"Weinachtsmann"

This name means Christmas Man. On Dec. 6th,  Saints Feast Day, children would leave their shoes on the doorstep. Weinachtsmann would fill the shoes with toys and gifts. In some parts of Germany he brought presents on Christmas Eve accompanied by Christkindle  "Christ's Little Helper".  Research done by Patty at  Mountain Elves

In Germany Saint Nicholas also travels with an assistant, known as Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, or Pelzebock, and comes with a sack on his back and a rod in his hand. Good children receive a gift, but naughty children are punished by the assistant with a few hits of the rod.

"Christkindl"

Blending with the legend of St. Nicholas is the German story of the Christ Child or Christkindl, who brought gifts to children on Christmas Eve. Depicted as a child riding a mule, the Christkindl was believed to enter homes through keyholes. 

When English-speaking colonists settled in German communities in Pennsylvania , Christkindl was transformed into Kris Kringle. By the mid 1800s, the legends of Kris Kringle, Santa Claus and St. Nicholas were intertwined

 "Rubezahl"

The watcher of the woods. He would watch over children who entered the woods, keeping them from getting lost and safe from  harm. All year long he would make presents which he would pack into his sack at Christmas time and deliver to the children.  this legend is copyrighted by  Mountain Elves.  Please go there for permission to use this legend.

"Vodan"

In the sixteenth century in Germany, we see the pagan god Vodan, who it was believed flew over villages and towns to see how well the people were behaving and caring for their children and animals. In this respect he was making moral  judgments, in much the same way as Santa came to judge the behavior of children. 

"Befana"

This is yet another name for Santa in Germany but I haven't heard any history yet about it.
 

Austria

On Dec. 6th the Saint Nicholas ("Heiliger Nikolaus") brings small presents to the children, while the Krampus comes to punish the children who were not nice (yes, with hits of a rod). This can be quite a violent event in some regions in the Alps, where older boys, dressed in furs, with masks and horns, run after the girls and smaller children and try to hit them....

But this is not the Christmas man and this does not really have a connection to Christmas.

Before Christmas, the children write letters to the Christkind, telling him, what they wish for. They have to put the letter somewhere in the window, where it is removed by the Christkind sometime in the night (in some families the Christkind leaves a golden hair behind...)

On the evening of Dec. 24th the children are told to wait in their room, while the parents prepare the Christmas tree and the presents. At our home, the sounding of a small bell announced, that the Christkind had been here and brought presents. Our parents told us we had to open the door and shout "thank you, dear Christkind" after we opened the parcels, which were lying around the tree.

Christkind does mean Christ - child. I believe it was supposed to be the young Jesus, bringing us presents, but nowadays people think about a young girl with blond hair when they talk about the Christkind.

The Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus) has somehow driven out the Christkind in some families (and especially in the media and shopping malls) because of the American TV series influence and because it is easier to have a man walking around in a red coat with a white beard than some small child.

I am a little disappointed by this trend, because I believe that it brings Christmas even more away from its true meaning.

I do not know much about north - Germany, but it may be that they always only had the Wehnachtsmann and not the Christkind.

Ruebezahl is indeed an old legend, but to my knowledge has nothing to do with Christmas.

I do not know anything about "Vodan" or "Befana" in the context of Chrismas.

But Befana is a name for someone who brings presents in Italy (see: http://www.pantheon.org/mythica/articles/b/befana.html)

And Vodan (or Wodan) seems to be another name for Odin, the Germanic god (I do not know the correct name in English: the belief of the people in northern Europe before Christianity)   submitted by Thomas Lehrer

Iceland 

"Joladveinar"

Christmas boys - They were not something you'd want around your house during Christmas.  There are 13 Jolasveinar or Christmas boys, as the name might be translated into English. The Icelandic Santas first appeared in the 17th century as the sons of the two trolls, Gryla and Leppaludi. Gryla and Leppaludi are terribly frightening creatures, and had a reputation for stealing and eating naughty children. The Jolasveinar are supposedly the sons of Gryla, and Leppaludi and while their number isn't exact, the most common number is thirteen. Their names however are at least 70. 

The dominant member in the relationship between Gryla and Leppaludi is Gryla who, according to some legends, had another husband before Leppaludi.  According to the legends Gryla is unlucky enough to find herself husbands that are constantly bedridden and so, Gryla goes around the countryside finding food for her husbands. At Christmas time she steals children that have been naughty during the year.

Through the centuries Gryla has been a very popular means of making children behave. There are numerous legends and stories about Gryla and her exploits, but she never gets her hands on any children. For one reason or another they have either been very well behaved or they manage to escape. 

When they first appeared, the Jolasveinar had many of the attributes of their parents but soon started to seem milder, and, in the last century, gained some of the attributes of their Nordic counterparts (i.e. the Christmas elves), and in this century they have become homegrown versions of Santa Clauses. 

They supposedly start arriving, one at a time, 13 days before Christmas, each one wreaking minor havoc on the Christmas preparations. One, supposedly, would steal the food, one would mess with the cows, another dirty your clothes and there was even one who'd steal your candles if he could. 

Today they leave little presents for the children in shoes that the children have put on the window sill the night before. Or, if the children have been naughty, they leave a potato, or some other reminder that good behavior is essential around Christmas. Conversely, they start leaving again on Christmas  Day, the last one leaving on the Threttandinn, traditionally an Icelandic holiday. 

 

Holland

"Sint Nikolass"  or  "Sinterklaas"

Sintirklass is an austere bishop who wore a red bishop's costume and rode on a white horse (or sailed in on a ship) arriving on the 6th of December.  He carries a big book which tells him how the Dutch children have behaved during the past year.  Good children are rewarded with gifts and the bad ones are taken away by his assistant, Black Peter.

In the sixteenth century,  children placed wooden shoes by the hearth the night of Sinterklaas'  arrival. The shoes were filled with straw,  and a meal for the saint's gift-laden donkey. In return, Sinterklaas  would insert a small treat into each clog. In America, the shoe was replaced with the stocking, hung by the chimney. 

The Dutch kept the St. Nicholas tradition alive. As the "protector of sailors," St. Nicholas graced the prow  of the first Dutch ship that arrived in America. And the first church built in New York City was named after him.  Sinterklaas became Anglicized into Santa Claus. No longer depicted as a bishop, Santa Claus still delivered gifts, although the date was changed to Christmas Eve. The colors of red and white, formerly part of the bishop's vestments, evolved into Santa Claus' present-day "uniform."

The American image of Sintirklass would gradually evolve into that of a jolly old elf. He was first described as a plump and jolly old Dutchman by Washington Irving in his comic History of New York. In 1823, the Sintirklass/Saint Nicholas' metamorphosis continued with the publication of Clement Moore's poem, Twas the night before Christmas

"Christkindle"

The English Dutch and German Dutch located in this area combined their legends of Santa. Some called him Christkindle and others called him Kris Kringle. He would climb through open windows leaving presents. On his departure he would ring a bell.

 "Zwarte Piet"

 Black Peter - During the middle ages the Dutch referred to the devil as Black Peter. It was said that St. Nicholas put the devil in chains and made him his slave. St. Nicholas would have Black Peter drop candy and gifts down the chimneys into the children's shoes on St. Nicholas Eve, which is a few weeks before Christmas.. The practice was eventually carried over to  Christmas itself. 


 

France 

"Pére Noël"

Papa Noel - On St. Nicholas Eve the children would stuff their shoes with hay and a carrot for Pére Noëlís reindeer. The reindeer food was exchanged during the night with gifts for the children.  A traditional supper follows Midnight Mass in France and a yule log is kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. 


 

Sweden

  "Tompte"

Tomptes are elves who live deep in the forest. At Christmas time they make ornaments from wheat to decorate the trees. They also deliver gifts to the good children. Tompte's were always seen accompanied by a goat made of wheat, called a Julback.


 

North Pole

Eskimo Santa - He would leave toys and goodies to good children with the help of his companions the Snow Babies. His Snow Baby helpers are believed to be the result of Peary's first North Pole expedition.   Mrs. Peary gave birth to a caucasian baby girl, and the Eskimos would travel  for many miles to view her fair skin. They called the baby  Ah-Poo-Mickaninny, which translates to Snow Baby.  Copyright: Mountain Elves


 Mongolian/Asian 

"Tsai Sen Yeh"

Herdsmen's Day is celebrated with feasting and the exchanging of small gifts by the family. Many other  Oriental ethnic groups (those touched by the Mongols), were influenced by  the tradition of these year-end celebrations. Tsai Sen Yeh appears at the end of the feast and gives gifts of money to the children. 


 

Siberia 

"Dedt Moroz

Father Ice -  There once was a woman who had two stepdaughters, one kind and the other wicked. One day in a fit of rage, the stepmother threw the kind daughter out in the cold. Dedt Moroz appeared on his sleigh and, impressed with her kindness, rewarded her with diamonds. After hearing about this, the mother put her wicked stepdaughter out in the snow. The wicked girl threw a tantrum, which irritated Dedt Moroz so much that he turned her into ice. 

 


Other Countries


.. In Italy, La Befana is good witch who dresses all in black and brings gifts to children on the Epiphany, January 6th. In many Spanish countries; Spain, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and South America, the children wait for the Three Kings to bring their Christmas gifts. 

He is also called Bobouschka in Germany, but I don't know if this is another name for the good witch or another legend.

The Russians  celebrate a a grand motherly figure instead of a male.

Switzerland has the Christkindl or Christ Child who bears gifts. In some towns children await the Holy Child and in others Christkindl is a girl-angel who comes down from heaven bearing gifts.  She and her helpers distribute gifts and treats to those deserving of them, traveling through the villages in her sleigh, which is pulled by six reindeer.   (Researched by Patty from Mountain Elves).

The Scandinavian countries celebrate with an elf, called the julenisse or the juletomte who bears gifts. And in England Father Christmas, an more austere and thinner version of Santa Claus, brings gifts.

 

America

"Jolly Old Elf"

In 1809 Washington Irving introduced the first American depiction of Santa Claus in Knickerbocker's History of New York. Irving's Santa is of Dutch origin, with baggy breeches, broad brimmed hat,  magical long pipe and a habit of laying his finger alongside his nose and  winking. 

Much of modern-day Santa Claus lore, including the reindeer-drawn sleigh, originated in America.  Dr. Clement Clarke Moore composed, The  Night Before Christmas, in 1822, to read to his children on Christmas Eve.  The poem might have remained privately in the Moore family if a friend had not mailed a copy of it to a newspaper and it quickly became part of the Santa legend. 

It was in America that Santa put on weight.  The rosy-cheeked, roly-poly Santa is credited to the influential nineteenth-century cartoonist, Thomas Nast. From 1863 until 1886, Nast created a series of Christmas drawings for Harper's Weekly. These drawings, executed over twenty  years, exhibit a gradual evolution in Santa from the pudgy, diminutive, elf-like creature of Dr. Moore's immortal poem to the bearded, potbellied, life-size bell ringer familiar on street corners across America today. Nast's cartoons also showed the world how Santa spent his entire year constructing toys, checking on children's behavior, and reading their requests for special gifts.  His images were incorporated into the  Santa lore.

"Civil War Santa"

In late 1863 and throughout 1864 the red, white and blue flag motif was used in many unusual places in an effort to boost morale and patriotic spirits in the war-weary North. Both the North and the South used Santa to pass out propaganda material.  After all who is going to shoot Santa Claus!   This legend is copyrighted by Mountain Elves


 
 

After all that, read what the scientists have discovered about Santa.

Scientists have tried to answer the question, "Does Santa come with flying reindeer to deliver presents at Christmas?"  To find their answer, try to catch Santa and his reindeer.

Do reindeer really fly?  Catch us and see!
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These legends came from various sources and where I know they were copyrighted, the information for the copyright is listed.  If you see something that is copyrighted but credit isn't given, please contact me and I will correct it.  If you use anything on these pages, it is your responsibility to get copyright permission from the authors.

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