Merry Christmas and other Happy Holidays
Today begins twelve days of Christmas posts.
One a day. Or maybe two some days.
We start with a piece by guest Marc Schuster on the history of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, or whatever you call him.
Speculation on the Origins of Santa Claus
by Marc Schuster
First, let me say that I’m no expert on any of this. All I have going for me is an internet connection and a penchant for procrastination. I also have a tendency to obsess over things that don’t really matter. Hence my seasonal interest in the origins of Santa Claus.
When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me that Santa Claus was an Americanized version of Saint Nicholas. This made sense to a degree — at least linguistically — but it didn’t explain everything. For example, what was a fourth-century Greek bishop doing with a team of flying reindeer? And why did he keep trying to slide down chimneys? Weren’t there easier ways to give presents to good little girls and boys?
As it turns out, my grandfather was only telling a small part of the story. Yes, there was indeed a fourth-century bishop named Nicholas who was known for his generosity. And, yes, the Dutch corruption of his name into Sinterklaas evolved into today’s Santa Claus. But there’s also a lot more to the story.
Again, this is sheer speculation, but I’d describe Santa Claus as a cultural hybrid, a nexus of myths surrounding the winter season, a handful of characteristics that congealed over time into a single character.
One of the big mysteries that haunted me as a child wasn’t so much the logistical nightmare that must have been involved in leaving presents under every Christmas tree in the world in the span of a single night or even how Santa Claus managed to squeezed down chimney after chimney, but why he’d ever bother doing such a thing. After all, if everyone was expecting him, and he was going to be leaving us presents, then why didn’t we just leave our doors unlocked on Christmas Eve? It just didn’t make sense.
Unless, of course, there was something they weren’t telling us about Santa Claus. Like the fact that the business of sliding down chimneys is based on the Germanic myth of Krampus, the Grinch-like holday demon known for slithering down chimneys and stuffing children into burlap sacks.
Personally, I love this concept, because it says a lot about the culture that invented it. Instead of telling children to be good so that they’ll get a lot of presents or, at worst, find fossil fuels in their stockings, the Krampus myth gave parents the power to tell their children to be good lest a demon creep down the chimney, stuff them in a sack, and take them to hell.
I’m a little hazy on the details, but I also think I read somewhere that one variation on the Krampus myth involved fairies or elves who captured Krampus and forced him to be good, which explains his eventual move to bringing gifts to children in the dead of winter, and also most likely explains where Santa’s elves came from.
Today, there’s a Krampus-like figure in many countries throughout Europe. He goes by several names, including Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Perchten, Black Peter, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, and Klaubauf; and he’s usual the counterpart to a Santa Claus figure.
But what about the fact that Santa Claus is always winking at people? And what about the reindeer?
One reason Santa Claus is frequently depicted as winking is that he’s also based to some extent on Odin, the king of the Norse gods. Odin, as you may know, traded one of his eyes for wisdom. As a result, he frequently appears to be winking, much like Santa Claus. He also has a long, white beard like the one Santa Claus sports, whereas the beard of Saint Nicholas is usually depicted as being fairly trim.
Another interesting thing about Odin is that he was known to ride on a horse with eight legs. Though I’m not entirely sure how a horse with eight legs would manage to get around, the number eight suggests Santa Claus’s eight flying reindeer. And, yes, the connection is a bit of a stretch, but I admitted that yesterday.
What’s more significant is that Norse and Germanic festivals celebrating the Winter Solstice included an opportunity for children to fill their boots with hay and sugar on Solstice Eve as a gift to Odin’s horse, who was hungry from Carrying Odin around on the great Wild Hunt associated with the season. Returning the favor, Odin would leave gifts for the children who had been so kind to his horse.
So there’s Saint Nicholas, who was known for his generosity, Krampus, who was known for sliding down chimneys, and Odin who had one eye and a horse with eight legs. But none of this explains why Santa Claus sometimes goes by the name Chris Kringle.
This one, I think, we can trace back to Martin Luther. In line with his interest in reforming Christianity, Luther was way ahead of his time when it came to putting the Christ back in Christmas. One of his big concerns around the Christmas season was that Germans were more interested in the feast of Saint Nicholas, which was celebrated on December 6, than in the birth of Christ. To fix this problem, he told everyone to remember the Christkindl or Christ Child.
My guess is that Luther’s exhortations worked for a little while, but when Germans started emigrating to America, the Americans misheard “Christkindl” as Chris Kringle. Somewhere along the line, Chris Kringle got conflated with Santa Claus, and we ended up with this song, which you may recall from your childhood: “Kris Kringle”.
Of course, no discussion of Santa Claus would be complete without some mention of Coca Cola. I’ve heard more than once that Coca Cola invented the contemporary image of Santa Claus as part of a holiday-themed ad campaign. Snopes.com, however, notes that while Coca Cola did start using Santa Claus in their ads in the 1930s, images of what we now think of as the “traditional” jolly old elf were appearing on magazine covers and in advertisements throughout the first few decades of the twentieth century.
Yet while Coca Cola may not have “invented” Santa Claus, I wouldn’t be surprised if they helped to proliferate his image. What’s more, with the kind of corporate backing that a company like Coca Cola could provide, it isn’t surprising that the concept of Santa Claus eventually helped to turn Christmas into the commercial bonanza that it is today.
To sum up, though I’ve probably left a lot of the “ingredients” that have fed into our contemporary conception of Santa Claus out of this discussion, a few of the major ones are illustrated below. Saint Nicholas gave us his name. Krampus gave us the chimney. Odin gave us a fondness for winking and an odd predilection for associating footwear with the holidays, Martin Luther reminded us to keep the Christ in Christmas and thereby unwittingly gave us Chris Kringle, and Coca Cola helped turn Santa Claus into an agent of commercialism.
Personally, I’m rooting for Krampus to make a comeback.