The best-known and best-loved of all Christmas gift-givers is Santa Claus, whose identity is probably more entangled in a variety of different legends than any other seasonal spirit. The genial side of his personality is usually credited to the Norse god, Odin, who flew the skies of Winter and was able to cure diseases and predict the future, or the Germanic god, Thor, who rode on a chariot drawn by goats named Cracker and Cruncher. Some of the magical elements associated with Santa Claus came from Melchior, the oldest of the Three Kings who followed the Star to Bethlehem. It is generally accepted that the name "Santa Claus" was derived and abbreviated from his original Dutch title of "Sinterklaas."
Many pagan societies worshipped a hearth god, clad in red, who came down the chimney to bless those who had won his favor and to curse those who had not. Offerings of food and drink were left on hearth or mantel in an effort to please and appease this fickle god. In India and China, such red-garbed hearth gods continue to be worshipped today, but the modern-day Santa Claus, in the form which usually springs to mind when the name is mentioned, only came into existence approximately 100 years ago.
Thought of as supernatural, Santa Claus is attended by a host of elves and is able to travel the entire surface of the Eath in only a few short hours, which includes climbing up and down millions of chimneys. He is aware of who has been naughty and who has been nice and is known to bestow gifts upon those who have found favor in his eyes, while leaving bundles of switches or lumps of coal for those with whom he is less than pleased. Santa Claus, Patron Saint of Children, is blessed with a host of aliases and many cultures believe him to be a benevolent, fat and jolly character, often elvish in origin.
The foundation of Santa Claus, however, does appear to be based on a factual character. It is from this character that Santa Claus received the pious and supremely generous side of his nature...a character who once bestowed upon three penniless sisters a dowry in order that each of them could be married...a Saint whose name was Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas lived in Myra (known today as Turkey) during the Fourth Century. The only child of a wealthy family, he was orphaned at an early age when both parents succumbed to the plague. Nicholas grew up in a monastery and, at seventeen years of age, became one of the order's youngest priests. There are numerous tales detailing his generosity, given in the form of gifts to those in need...especially children. Legends tell of Nicholas dropping bags of gold down chimneys or throwing purses through windows where they would land in stockings hung to dry by the fireplace.
Though he is one of the most popular saints, there is little historical certainty about the life of Saint Nicholas. He is believed to have been born at Patara, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor around 280 A.D. and, in his youth, made a pilgrimage to Palestine sand Egypt, possibly studying at Alexandria, which was at that time the major center of learning. Shortly after returning to his homeland, he was made Bishop of Myra. Imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian, Nicholas was released after the accession of Constantine.
Saint Nicholas died of an unidentified sickness on December 6th. Dependent upon varying sources, the year was 330 A.D., or 345 A.D. or possibly 352 A.D. He was interred in the Cathedral at Myra. In 1087 A.D., this city fell to Islamic invaders and Nicholas' body was either rescued or stolen by Italian merchants and transported to Bari in Italy. A pilgrimage church was erected on the site so that Crusaders might pray there en route to or from the Holy Land. Officially recognized as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church some time in the Eleventh Century, Saint Nicholas is the third most beloved religious figure after Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Otherwise known as the "Wonder-Worker," he is credited with having performed countless miracles, both before and after his death. He is the Patron Saint of Greece and Russia, as well as many individual cities in Europe, such as Naples and Moscow. He is also the Patron Saint of mariners, merchants, bankers, travelers (to name but a few) and, of course, children. The principal relics of Saint Nicholas are preserved in the church of San Nicola in Bari. Up to the present day, an oily substance known as Manna di S. Nicola exudes from these relics. Collected in vials, it is highly valued for its medicinal powers. Turkey claims to possess certain bones of Saint Nicholas and Russia also lays claim to ownership of the saint's body.
Legend tells that there were once three, young unwed daughters of an impoverished nobleman who lived in a small town on the coast of Turkey. The family had fallen upon hard times and were obliged to live in a peasant's cottage, fending for themselves without the benefit of servants to undertake the household chores. The girls had attracted suitors, but were unable to marry because their father could not afford to provide them with the necessary dowries. Hearing of this unfortunate situation, Saint Nicholas took it upon himself to rectify the matter. However, being a modest and pious man, he determined to do so secretly in order that nobody would know who the generous benefactor might be.
One evening, after the daughters had washed their clothing, they hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry. That night, aware of the father's despair regarding the plight of his poor daughters, Saint Nicholas stopped by the former nobleman's house. Climbing upon the roof, he tossed a bag of gold coins down the chimney, where it landed inside the stocking of the oldest daughter. The next morning, the girl was overjoyed at the sudden appearance of the money and immediately rushed to her sweetheart to inform him of the good news. The following night, Saint Nicholas repeated his good deed and thus, the second daughter obtained the means by which to marry.
The father, though delighted at the good fortune of two of his daughters, wondered at the identity of the generous gift-giver. Believing that the benefactor would be sure to return with gold for the youngest girl, the father decided to keep watch during the night which followed. He hid by the chimney and, sure enough, observed Saint Nicholas climb the roof in order to drop coins into the stocking of the remaining unwed daughter. The saintly man begged the father to keep his secret but...as usually happens...word spread and soon Saint Nicholas became renowned for his charitable actions. From that time forward, whenever anyone received an unexpected gift, they thanked Saint Nicholas.
Thus, did the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve become a custom and God rewarded Saint Nicholas for his generosity by granting the saint permission to walk the streets on the Eve of his Feast, bringing presents to all good children. But, since Saint Nicholas disliked being seen when he gave away his gifts, the young and hopeful recipients were told to go to sleep quickly or the saint would not come and they would receive nothing. Even today, children are willing to go to bed without fuss on Christmas Eve because they know that if they stay up too late, then there will be nothing in their stockings come Christmas morning.
The story of the three sisters and their unexpected gifts of gold was told and retold for many generations. Numerous images were created of Saint Nicholas which depicted him holding three bags of gold. Eventually, the theme transformed into three gold balls and was adopted as a symbol by bankers and moneylenders. Today, it can still be seen hanging outside the doorways of pawnbroker shops.
It was also once customary in convent boarding schools for young women students to leave stockings at the door of their respective abbesses' rooms, accompanied by a note recommending themselves to the generosity of Saint Nicholas on the Eve of his Feast Day. These notes are believed to be the forerunners of "letters to Santa." The following morning, the abbesses would summon their charges and show them their stockings, supposedly filled with sweetmeats by the Saint.
With the Seventeenth reformation of the European Church, new Protestants no longer desired Saint Nicholas as their gift-giver since he was too closely associated to the old Catholic beliefs. Therefore, with the exception of Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinter Klaas (a Dutch variant of the name Saint Nicholas), each country or region began to develop their own specific seasonal benefactor. In more modern times, to Christians in the African Republic of Ghana, for example, the benefactor arrives from the depths of the jungle, in Hawaii, he travels by boat, and on the Nerang River in Australia, he rides water skis. In Brazil, the traditional bringer of gifts is known as Vovo Indo or Grandpapa Indian. In China, he is called Dun Che Lao Ren or Christmas Old Man.
These gift-givers are arrayed in every color of the rainbow...and sometimes, even in black...but all commonly share long, white beards and come bearing presents for the children. In some cultures, this bringer of gifts does not carry out his duties alone and his various assistants are as diverse as his own identities.
In some areas of the Netherlands, Sinter Klaas sails in on a ship which arrives on December 6th. He carries a big book maintained by his assistant, Black Pete, which records how the Dutch children have behaved during the past year. Good children are rewarded with gifts, but those who have been bad are taken away Black Pete, who also helps distribute presents to the good children. In other areas, Sinter Klaas arrives by horse and the Dutch children fill their shoes with hay and a carrots for the animal.
In Switzerland, the gift-giver is known as Pere Noel or Father Christmas. He wears a long, furred robe and marches around cities with his wife, Lucy, who distributes the gifts to the girls while Pere Noel gives them to the boys. In some Alpine regions, beings known as Ghosts of the Field clear the way for Father Christmas. Behind these spectres follows a man wearing the head of a goat and a masked demon brandishing a birch switch.
In France, the gift-bringer who delivers presents for the children is known as Pere Noel or Father Christmas. He is the personficiation of "Noel," the Festival of Good News. French children place their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts. This is a tradition which dates back to when children wore the wooden shoes of peasants.
During the 1500s, people in England stopped worshipping Saint Nicholas and favored another gift-giving figure called Father Christmas, who was known to their ancestors as Christmas itself. Always depicted with sprigs of holly or ivy or mistletoe, the English Father Christmas is often an austere and thinner version of the modern day Santa Claus, sometimes accompanied by a character more jolly than himself in nature known as Uncle Holly, who favors green for the color of his robes.
The original Russian gift-giver was Saint Nicholas, the country's Patron Saint, whose Feast Day is celebrated on December 6th. In the late 1900s, Ded Moroz (pronounced as "Dead Morose"), meaning Father or Grandfather Frost, surfaced in Russia as one of the most modern gift-givers of Europe. In Azerbaijani, he was known as Shakhta Babah. Usually appearing as a tall, thin man with a long white beard, he often wore flowing robes of blue and white. He was said to have lived in the Russian woods and journeyed in a "troika," or sleigh drawn by three horses abreast. Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden (a character from a famous Russian fairy tale) was said to assist Ded Moroz in the delivery of his gifts to the Russian children. Later in the Twentieth Century, Snegurochka became known as Ded Moroz's granddaughter.
With the Bolshevic Revolution in 1917, Lenin instituted an atheistic society which outlawed Christianity and banished Ded Morez into exile. New Years's Day became the traditional winter holiday during which families gathered around their "yolochka" (now called the "New Year's Tree") and exchanged presents. In 1948, when Stalin restored the holiday, Ded Moroz was reinvented by the Communist government and could be contracted through Zarya, the state monopoly for domestic services which controlled odd-job men and baby-sitters.
Today, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka make appearances at children's parties during the Christmas season, distributing presents and forever fighting off the evil witch, Baba Yaga, who tries to steal the gifts. Russian familes can board trains and travel to the picturesque village of Viliky Ustyug in the Vologodskaya Region of Northern Russia (approximately 500 miles northeast of Moscow) where, situated in the dense taiga forest at the confluence of three rivers, sits the little log cabin of Ded Moroz.
In some European countries today, the bringer of gifts has reverted to being Saint Nicholas of Myra. He arrives on the eve of his feast day (December 5th ), a day in Advent (the season just prior to Christmas) or on Christmas Eve itself. He is pictured in the old world tradition: an ascetic-looking bishop with white beard, red robes, crozier (ornamental staff ending with a hook) and mitre (tall, pointed hat).
In Germany, unlike earlier times, however, this modern version of Saint Nicholas, occasionally referred to as Weihnachtsmann or Christmas Man, is frequently accompanied by a strange-looking crew of followers, often wearing masks and unusual clothing. One such companion is known as the Krampus or Knecht Reprecht in Southern Germany, Pelzebock in Northwestern Germany and Hans Muff in the Rhineland. An ugly, growling, chain-rattling little ogre, he carries a sack on his back and a rod in his hand with which mete out punishment to naughty children. Saint Nicholas, of course, is far too kind to take on the task of chastising and scolding himself. In Germany's Berchtesgaden District, twelve young men dressed in straw and wearing animal masks dance along behind Saint Nicholas while ringing cowbells. After gifts are delivered to each home, the masked men drive the young people out and beat them...or pretend to do so. This is symbolic punishment for having misbehaved and was once part of a pagan ritual which was believed to have ensured a plentiful harvest of crops for the coming year.
Sometimes, Saint Nicholas arrives in Germany riding a white horse (as is also the custom in Belgium and some areas of the British Isles, where he is astride a white donkey rather than a horse) and is accompanied by a hairy imp called Pelz Nichol, meaning Nicholas in Fur. Parents tell Pelz Nichol how their children have behaved all year. Good children receive gifts, but bad children receive only bundles of twigs or switches.
When the Dutch colonists traveled to America and settled what was to become New York, they brought with them their annually reappearing Saint Nicholas or, as they called him, Sinter Klaas, complete with bishop's cloak, mitre, jeweled gloves and crozier. English-speaking children tried to prounounce the Dutch name for the saint, but said it too quicky. Eventually, the name was changed to "Santy" or "Santa Claus."
Though originally depicted as tall, thin and stately, Washington Irving created a new image of Santa Claus in 1809 with the publication of his "Knickerbocker's History of New York." This revamped and more modern Santa was a fellow who looked very much like the stereotyped version of a Dutch settler living in the State of New York at the time. Irving described him as the guardian of New York City...a jolly fellow wearing a broad-brimmed hat and huge breeches and smoking a long pipe. He rode over the treetops in a wagon, took presents from his pockets and dropped them down chimneys.
In 1822, Clement C. Moore's now popular seasonal poem ""A Visit from St. Nicholas," perputuated the portrait of Irving's contemporary Santa Claus. Moore's Santa was described as a "chubby and plump, right jolly old elf." Depicted as round and jocular with twinkling eyes, nose like a cherry and white beard, Moore's gift-giver puffed a stump of a pipe and rode in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Much like the German Pelz Nichol, he was dressed in all fur.
Beginning in 1863, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, created a different annual illustration of Santa Claus for the cover of "Harper's Weekly." Nast's gift-bringer was again a plump, jolly old fellow with a white beard who smoked a long-stemmed pipe. In 1866, Nast's cover art featured the now famous drawing entitled "Santa Claus and His Works." The picture illustrated the benevolent old chap in his workshop with his record of the good and bad deeds of all children. It also showed the reindeer-drawn sleigh, pack of toys, stockings hung by the fireplace and a Christmas tree. This came to be the accepted North American image of the beloved gift-giver...one who is round and plump and who chortles "Ho Ho Ho" as he rides in his sleigh pulled by reindeer, delivering toys to children and gleefully devouring the snacks left out to sustain him during his long journey from the North Pole and back again.
The most recent depictions of Santa Claus have come from the soft-drink giant, Coca-Cola. From 1931 to 1964, Haddon Sundblom created a new Santa each Christmas for the beverage's advertisements that appeared world-wide on the back covers of "Post" and "National Geographic" magazines. This is basically the Santa who is universally loved today...complete with a red suit, trimmed with white fur, leather boots and belt, long white beard and a pack of toys slung across his back.