Sunday, December 22, 2013

Day 22- He Sees You When You're Sleeping

Hello everyone, and welcome to Day 22 of Advent Countdown. Today I'm looking at the big man himself. In my culture that would be Father Christmas/ Santa Claus, depending on whether you prefer the British or American name. But who exactly is he? And how did he come to be? Well let's find out.

Frank Sinatra "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"

A man of many names. Some call him either of the two above, or Saint Nicholas or Kris Kringle, or simply Santa for short, but do all these names refer to the same person?


Let start with Saint Nicholas. Often said to be the predecessor to the modern Santa, and the original gift-giver. But was he? Saint Nicholas was a Greek Christian bishop of Myra in Anatolia (now Turkey) during the fourth century. He was very religious, even from a young age, and devoted his life to Christianity. Famous for his generous gifts to the poor, including a famous event where he left three bags of gold anonymously on one family's doorstop, so their father could use them as dowries and his daughters wouldn't be forced into prostitution. 

So well loved was he, that for centuries people celebrated a day in his namesake- Saint Nicholas Day, on the sixth of December. During the Middles Ages, children were given gifts on the Eve of the fifth in his honour. During the Reformation (and its opposition to the worship of saints in many countries), the date was moved to the 24th and the 25th, and Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus. 

The custom of gifts for Christmas began with Martin Luther. He wanted children to focus on Christ, rather than Saint Nicholas or any other saints. It was he who suggested Christkind as the replacement gift-giver (who remains so in many cultures), but Saint Nicholas held his popularity in a majority. 

Prior to Christianity, the Germanic peoples (and the English) celebrated a midwinter event called Yule. When Christianity spread through Germanic Europe, many of the Yuletide traditions were brought into modern Christmas. 

During Yule, people believed that supernatural occurrences were much more frequent. One such event was the Wild Hunt- a ghostly procession through the sky. Many believe the leader of the hunt was Odin himself (as he has been given the names 'Jolnir' (meaning yule figure) and 'Langbaror' (meaning long-beard).  

Odin is thought to have some mark on the formation of the current St. Nick- with his long, white beard, and his custom of  bringing gifts to children.

In the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, St. Nicholas is often referred to as 'De Goede Sint' (The Good Saint) or Sinterklaas. He is portrayed as an elderly, serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wore a red cape over a traditional white bishop's alb, wore a red mitre, and held a long, gold shepherd's staff with a curled top (a crosier). He would distribute presents to children, checking his book of Saint Nicholas (full of childrens' names) to see if they had been naughty or nice.  This is a version of the real Saint Nicholas, who's celebration day is the 6th of December. He would arrive on a steam boat from Spain in mid-November, and begin to distribute gifts to all the houses (during a three week period), riding on a white horse above the rooftops.


In the 1840's, Nordic folklore celebrated a being known as 'Tomte' or 'Nisse'. In Denmark, he became their gift-bringer, and was normally portrayed as a short, bearded man dressed in grey clothes and a red hat. This was very much a corruption of the folkloric creature, now influenced by the new Santa Claus traditions making their way through Scandinavia. By the end of the nineteenth century, these new traditions had reached Norway and Sweden, replacing the Yule Goat. However, a straw goat is still a common Christmas decoration throughout Scandinavia.

Father Christmas had a different origin. In sixteenth century England (during the rule of Henry VIII), Father Christmas was portrayed as a large man dressed in green or red robes lined with fur. He was the embodiment of good cheer at Christmas, and brought peace, joy, good food, wine and revelry. At this point, England no longer celebrated Saint Nicholas Day, so Father Christmas' celebration was put on the 25th to coincide with Christmas. 

He had many portrayals, and the Victorians brought him to new life. A famous depiction was the image of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol', where he was illustrated by John Leech as a great, jolly man wearing green robes lined with fur. Around this point in time, Father Christmas and Santa Claus were widely seen as one and the same person. 

So Santa Claus himself is a mix of all three above- Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas. His own name was first used by the American press in 1773. Many of his modern attributes (including flying, his sleigh, the reindeer and going down chimneys) were made canon by Clement Clark Moore's popular 'A Visit From St. Nicholas' (now more commonly known as 'The Night Before Christmas'), which he published anonymously in 1823.

Though his chimney entering ways may also have come from Pre-Christian Norse traditions. Odin would often drop down chimneys to deliver gifts on the Solstice. In Italian Befana tradition, a gift-giving witch is portrayed as constantly covered in soot from her trips down chimneys, and even in tales of Saint Nicholas himself, he would throw coins in through windows of peoples' houses. This evolved to down the chimney, as windows would often be locked. 

The hearth itself was seen as a sacred source of magic, used by elves and faeries as a portal to our world, that they used to deliver gifts. However, the association of chimneys with Santa Claus was down to Clement Clark Moore's aforementioned poem.

His base in the North Pole is thought to be down to an illustration done by American cartoonist, Thomas Nast. In 1863 he drew an image of the Jolly Old St. Nick, with the caption "Santa Claussville, N.P.".

Mrs. Clause may have come from a poem by Katherine Lee Bates in 1889 called, "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride",  but she was popularised and brought into the canon in 1956, when George Melachrino released a song called, 'Mrs. Santa Claus'. 

Woah, there was a lot to get through there. No doubt this isn't all the lore that brought the modern Santa to life, but I did my best. I hope you all enjoyed learning about one of the most famous men of all time. 

Thank you for joining me for Day 22 of Advent Countdown. See you all tomorrow for Day 23. 


No comments:

Post a Comment