Santa Claus

1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, along with Clement Clarke Moore's poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus
The modern portrayal of Santa Claus frequently depicts him listening to children's Christmas wishes.

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, or simply Santa, is a legendary figure originating in Western Christian culture who is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved ("good" or "nice") children on Christmas Eve (24 December) and the early morning hours of Christmas Day (25 December).[1] The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding the historical Saint Nicholas (a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra), the British figure of Father Christmas and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (himself also based on Saint Nicholas). Some maintain Santa Claus also absorbed elements of the Germanic god Wodan, who was associated with the pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.

Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, joyous, white-bearded man—sometimes with spectacles—wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, a red hat with white fur and black leather belt and boots and who carries a bag full of gifts for children. This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast.[2][3][4] This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children's books, films, and advertising.

Santa Claus is said to make lists of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior ("good" and "bad", or "naughty" and "nice") and to deliver presents, including toys, and candy to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and coal to all the misbehaved children, on the single night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of his elves, who make the toys in his workshop at the North Pole, and his flying reindeer, who pull his sleigh.[5][6] He is commonly portrayed as living at the North Pole, and often laughing in a way that sounds like "ho ho ho".

Predecessor figures

Saint Nicholas

A 13th-century depiction of St. Nicholas from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Empire, 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.[7] He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In continental Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany) he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.

The remains of Saint Nicholas are in Italy. In 1087, the Italian city of Bari mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Saint. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was conquered by Italian sailors and his relics were taken to Bari[8][9] where they are kept to this day. A basilica was constructed the same year to store the loot and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout. Sailors from Bari collected just half of Nicholas' skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the First Crusade and taken to Venice, where a church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the San Nicolò al Lido. This tradition was confirmed in two important scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two Italian cities belong to the same skeleton. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers.[7][10] He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.[11]

During the Middle Ages, often on the evening before his name day of 6 December, children were bestowed gifts in his honour. This date was earlier than the original day of gifts for the children, which moved in the course of the Reformation and its opposition to the veneration of saints in many countries on the 24th and 25 December. So Saint Nicholas changed to Santa Claus. The custom of gifting to children at Christmas has been propagated by Martin Luther as an alternative to the previous very popular gift custom on St. Nicholas, to focus the interest of the children to Christ instead of the veneration of saints. Martin Luther first suggested the Christkind as the bringer of gifts. But Nicholas remained popular as gifts bearer for the people.[12][13][14]

Father Christmas

"Ghost of Christmas Present", an illustration by John Leech made for Charles Dickens's festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843).

Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur.[15] He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry.[15] As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to the 25th of December to coincide with Christmas Day.[15] The Victorian revival of Christmas included Father Christmas as the emblem of 'good cheer'.[16] His physical appearance was variable,[17] with one famous image being John Leech's illustration of the "Ghost of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens's festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843), as a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.[15][16]

Dutch, Belgian and Swiss folklore

Sinterklaas, Netherlands (2009) on his horse called Slecht Weer Vandaag or Amerigo

In the Netherlands and Belgium the character of Santa Claus has to compete with that of Sinterklaas, Santa's presumed progenitor. Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman in Dutch ("the Christmas man") and Père Noël ("Father Christmas") in French. But for children in the Netherlands Sinterklaas remains the predominant gift-giver in December; 36% of the Dutch only give presents on Sinterklaas evening or the day itself (December 6[18]), whereas Christmas (December 25) is used by another 21% to give presents. Some 26% of the Dutch population gives presents on both days.[19] In Belgium, Sinterklaas day presents are offered exclusively to children, whereas on Christmas Day, all ages may receive presents. Sinterklaas' assistants are called "Zwarte Pieten" (in Dutch, "Pères Fouettard" in French), so they are not elves.[20] In Switzerland, Pères Fouettard accompanies Père Noël in the French speaking region, while the sinister Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus in the Swiss German region. Schmutzli carries a twig broom to spank the naughty children.[21]

Germanic paganism, Wodan, and Christianization

An 1886 depiction of the long-bearded Norse god Odin by Georg von Rosen

Prior to Christianization, the Germanic peoples (including the English) celebrated a midwinter event called Yule (Old English geola or giuli).[22] With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas.[23] During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.[citation needed] The leader of the wild hunt is frequently attested as the god Wodan (Norse Odin), bearing (among many names) the names Jólnir, meaning "Yule figure", and Langbarðr, meaning "long-beard", in Old Norse.[24]

Wodan's role during the Yuletide period has been theorized as having influenced concepts of St. Nicholas in a variety of facets, including his long white beard and his gray horse for nightly rides (compare Odin's horse Sleipnir) or his reindeer in North American tradition.[25] Folklorist Margaret Baker maintains that "the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. […] Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage."[26]

In Finland they still use Joulupukki or the Christmas Goat.

Other Languages
Alemannisch: Weihnachtsmann
العربية: بابا نويل
অসমীয়া: ছাণ্টাক্লজ
asturianu: Pá Noel
azərbaycanca: Şaxta Baba
Bân-lâm-gú: Sèng-tàn Lāu-lâng
беларуская: Санта-Клаус
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Санта-Кляўс
български: Дядо Коледа
català: Pare Noel
čeština: Santa Claus
Cymraeg: Siôn Corn
dansk: Julemanden
eesti: Jõuluvana
Ελληνικά: Άι Βασίλης
español: Papá Noel
Esperanto: Kristnaska Viro
euskara: Bizarzuri
فارسی: بابا نوئل
føroyskt: Jólamaðurin
français: Père Noël
galego: Papá Noel
한국어: 산타클로스
Հայերեն: Սանտա Կլաուս
hornjoserbsce: Rumpodich
íslenska: Jólasveinn
italiano: Babbo Natale
ქართული: სანტა კლაუსი
kaszëbsczi: Swiãti Mikòłôj
Kiswahili: Baba Krismasi
кырык мары: Санта Клаус
Lëtzebuergesch: Santa Claus
lietuvių: Kalėdų Senelis
lumbaart: Bobà Nedal
magyar: Mikulás
македонски: Дедо Мраз
მარგალური: სანტა კლაუსი
Bahasa Melayu: Santa Claus
Nederlands: Kerstman
Nedersaksies: Kìrstman
norsk: Julenissen
norsk nynorsk: Julenissen
Nouormand: Papa Noué
occitan: Paire nadal
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Santa Klaus
português: Papai Noel
română: Moș Crăciun
русский: Санта-Клаус
sicilianu: Babbu Natali
Simple English: Santa Claus
slovenščina: Božiček
کوردی: بابانۆئێل
српски / srpski: Санта Клоз
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Djed Božićnjak
svenska: Jultomten
Tagalog: Santa Claus
ᏣᎳᎩ: ᏗᎭᏄᎧᎯ
Türkçe: Santa Claus
українська: Санта-Клаус
vèneto: Pupà Nadałe
Tiếng Việt: Ông già Noel
Winaray: Santa Claus
ייִדיש: סאנטא קלויז
粵語: 聖誕老人
中文: 圣诞老人