Since a few other sites out there are doing the Pagan origins of Christmas, I thought I'd chime in with a ruthless analysis of the origins of Santa Claus. To link it in with a geek blog, just see it as an exercise in web research.
Now then, America is but a young pup when it comes to culture. Lacking the millenniums of history that some European countries have, we have to reach and stretch for our myths and legends wherever we can scrape them up. In the end, we settle for imports.
You rarely see it asked: how did we come to make up Santa Claus? We shrug; our parents told us. And wasn't there that Coca-Cola commercial? And there were those shows on TV. And the parade. In our American culture, our most widely recognized mythical figure is a person who, prancing through the night incognito, takes the credit from Santa Mastercard, Santa Visa, and Santa American Express for bringing the goodies.
We start with Turkey - the country, not the poultry - and a bishop named Nicholas who helped provide some dowries for three sisters so they could get married, and yadda yadda yadda. He was the bishop of Myra, and had been imprisoned during the reign of Diocletian and released when Constantine became the Roman emperor, Rome having jurisdiction over Turkey at the time. Saint Nicholas was a widely celebrated favorite of European folklore throughout the Middle ages, but he had the greatest popularity in the Netherlands.
We hear about Saint Nicholas as the roots of our Santa Claus all the time. We know that this eventually led to the legend of Sinterklaas, which spread from the Netherlands to Belgium, Germany, and Austria. But how do we get from a sack of money from a bishop to reindeer and red suit? And why is he hanging out at the North Pole?
Meet the Norse god Thor. Thor, god of thunder, son of Odin, was the star of many passion plays featuring his battle against the race of giants. He was freely shared by Scandinavians who passed him around as kind of their version of the Greek Hercules hero-type, and he eventually spread to Germany as well. The part that makes you sit up and pay attention is that Thor traveled by a magic chariot drawn through the sky by a pair of flying goats! Moreover, historic pictures of Thor painted him wearing a red suit. He had red hair and beard, like a Scandinavian, and was muscle-bound rather than rotund, but outside of that he's pretty close - certainly a lot closer than a bishop godfather, at any rate.
Europeans tend to mix things together if it makes a better story, and one could hardly blame them. So Nicholas became revered as a Saint, then as the patron Saint of children. It's easy to see where Germanic parents, telling stories of St. Nick to their children, might have glanced up at a painting of Thor brought over from Denmark or perhaps Sweden and decided then and there to weave in elements from Nordic legend to liven up the bishop a little.
So before Santa Claus was even brought to American shores by waves of European immigrants, he was already a patchwork character who had borrowed elements from a good chunk of European mythology. Americans confused the issue further by adapting Santa to a more Caucasian motif over the years. First the author Washington Irving, who also gave us Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle, set the stage for Christmas to be adopted as an American holiday in his classic stories of Bracebridge Hall. Unsurprisingly, he and James Fenimore Cooper were two of the first American writers to gain acclaim in Europe. The cross-cultural bridge for Santa Claus had been formed.
Next, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the famous poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas", better known by it's partial opening line "The Night Before Christmas". This pretty much shaped Santa Claus for Americans ever since then, and this years before Coca Cola hired Haddon H. Sundblom to turn Santa into their soda-seller. Now, in Moore's work, Santa went from red hair to white hair, became chubby, and replaced his goats with reindeer. And perhaps Moore was feeling repentant for his cultural butchery, because he left us a clue to Santa's origins in the naming of these reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.
Some of those names definitely have Scandinavian rings to them, but the kicker is "Donner". Donner (sometimes given as Donder) is the German name for Thor (or thunder), as given, amongst other references, in Wagner's opera "Der Ring des Nibelungen", and blitzen itself is the German word for lightning. Ooooh! Aaaah! Amazing!
For the bonus round: There's an anti-Claus! His name is Krampus, he hasn't been imported from Scandinavia yet, he looks just like the devil, and it's his job to run around harassing either housewives or naughty kids (depending on who you ask) just before (or while) Santa comes and rewards the good kids. Good cop, bad cop. Let's start a campaign to import Krampus to America as well, shall we? I'm bored dizzy sitting here waiting for the kids to plow through their presents tomorrow morning; dressing up as a devil and running around the neighborhood popping up in bedroom windows tonight would be just the thing.
And an extra, EXTRA bonus round: Here you've been celebrating Christmas all this time, and I bet you've never observed Candlemas! For shame. Candlemas is a Christian feast commemorating the post-natal purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple. So it's the "bookend Holiday" to Christmas. Under the law of Moses, a mother of a male baby is supposed to be "unclean" after giving birth, and must wait 40 days before being declared "clean" again. Candlemas is observed by lighting candles, of course, but also by watching animals for signs of what the future will be like. Now, on your American calendar, count 40 days forward from Christmas, and what do you get?
Happy Holidays from Penguin Pete's!
Wikipedia - Santa Claus
Straight Dope - Santa Claus
Rotten - Krampus
Wikipedia - Thor
Snopes - Santa Claus
Wikipedia - "A Visit From Saint Nicholas"
Wikipedia - Santa's reindeer
Christian Resource Center - Santa Claus
Wikipedia - companions of Santa Claus
Wikipedia - Candlemas
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