Well everybody, since last year I compiled an epic list of Christmas-related mythical creatures, I figured this year I’d focus on good old Santa Claus.
What the heck is he, anyway?
A very kind early-Christian bishop, Saint Nicholas, is famous for giving money to poor families by secretly throwing the sacks of gold through their windows at night.
As time went on, other stories became attributed to him such as calming a storm at sea, saving innocent prisoners from death, punching heretics at the Council of Nicaea, and resurrecting three children who had been killed and sold as ham during a famine.
Over time, Saint Nick became combined with another figure…
Celebrations of ‘Yule’ in Germanic Cultures have been around since ancient times. After all, in all that cold and grey there is a basic need for some feasting and fire.
The Aesir (Thor, Loki, etc.) were associated with the event, particularly Odin. According to tradition, the first toast of Yuletide was drunk to him, the second to Njord and Frey, and the third to the king. Strangely, Yuletide was also associated with the activity of ghosts and wandering Draugr. Today we have Halloween for that.
Tomte (also from Norse Folklore) are little troll-like creatures that can be either a help or a hassle for a Scandinavian home. They wear pointy red hats (like garden gnomes) and are particularly associated with Christmas. They ride around with the Yule Goat, leaving presents on doorsteps or even bringing them directly to the children.
Over time, the Yule Tomte became one character, who gradually became more like Santa- though there are differences. Instead of living at the North Pole, he lives in a local forest, or perhaps in Greenland. He is not overweight, and his carriage is pulled by goats. His helpers are the traditional farm Tomte.
After the Odin/ Saint Nick/ Father Christmas character was born, the legend began to grow. And his uniform changed as well.
First came ‘Green Santa’. Introduced into American culture in the 1700’s. Unlike the traditional bishop image, this Santa was a fat man wearing a green winter coat. Because he was a legend brought over by Dutch immigrants, he became a stereotype of New York Dutch subculture- smoking a pipe, sometimes wearing a sailor uniform. Other images simply showed him as a jolly man who gave presents in stockings.
The Dutch Sinterclass became Santa Claus.
Though the green coat didn’t stick, it paved the way for depictions of Santa to exchange his bishop apparel for more generic winter clothes, though still a red coat.
Probably the most recognizable part of the Santa Suit is the hat. Most don’t know that Santa’s headwear is actually a nightcap.
But the hat wasn’t always around. See this image from Old Santeclaus with Much Delight:
A fur cap, and a brown beard!
Also note the reindeer. Traditionally, Saint Nick rode around on a white horse. Odin rode on his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir.
In all likelihood, the eight-legged horse was just too weird, and the white stallion was a bit over-the-top-noble for the newly emerging ‘fat elf’ Santa.
So where did the reindeer come from?
Old Santeclaus with Much Delight is the first source to mention them. When asked, the anonymous writer described magical animals resembling reindeer, which lived near the North Pole and were known to be able to fly. He said his mother had witnessed these.
Once the tale entered the public imagination, the reindeer’s number expanded from one to eight, thanks to our next influential source.
NOT EVEN A MOUSE
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, yet another anonymous short story, solidified the image of Santa.
He was small, a ‘jolly old elf’ in fact. He rode in a ‘miniature sleigh’, pulled by ‘eight tiny reindeer’.
In the first edition illustrations of the poem, Santa wears a fur cap and pretty much normal (for that time) clothes.
Later editions show him with a long coat, very Saint Nicholas like.
In 1958, the year of the ’58 Chevy, Santa was bald and wore no hat. The sixties brought in orange and green Santa Clothes, and a pink sleigh.
Back to the poem itself.
Referred to throughout the poem as St. Nick or Saint Nicholas, this iteration of Santa brought in the mode of entry (through the chimney, of course) and the names of the Reindeer.
Later, Dunder and Blixem were replaced by Donner and Blitzen. And we haven’t even reached the most famous reindeer of all…
Rudolph was one attempt at building the legend that succeeded madly, to the point that for many people, the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the only one they can name!
ELVES AND THE NORTH POLE
As seen above, Santa Claus was sometimes considered an elf. In some depictions from the early twentieth century, he made all the toys himself. But then, workers from the Salvation Army began dressing up as Santa, and Coca Cola commercials started using him for advertising.
These commercials, and popular fiction The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum, ended the idea of Santa being an elf.
But what about those other elves?
Nobody knows the precise origin of the elves. It probably has something to do with the Yule Tomte from Scandinavian mythology.
The first literature to describe them was Christmas Elves, by Louisa May Alcott. After that, the American magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book depicted elves at work preparing for Christmas. They have continued that role ever since.
Thomas Nast was a cartoonist, whose drawings of Santa Claus added all sorts of stuff to the legend.
Before Nast, Santa was generally assumed to live somewhere in Europe. Dwelling at the North Pole made him even more iconically Wintry, and also made Snowmen a permanent part of his entourage.
The Naughty and Nice list was also important. When Odin (father yule) wanted to know what was happening down in the lower worlds, he would send his two ravens to spy. They would sit and the chimney of houses and report back to Odin about which people were being good, and which bad.
Saint Nick would always have a sort of evil alter ego, for instance Krampus or Black Pete. They would punish bad children (in extreme cases whipping them or carrying them to Spain for punishment, in later days just giving them coal). They were the accusers.
Anyway, there was always an idea of Santa Claus distinguishing between bad and good. Today, thanks to Tom Nast, it takes the form of the naughty and nice list. The modern accusers are little demonic elves on the shelves.
The King of Jingling, Kris Kringle, is one of the many epitaphs of Santa. But where did it come from?
The Christkind (Christ-child) is traditionally the giver of gifts in places such as Australia, Switzerland, and Quebec. He is sort of a Baby Jesus archetype, though many others consider him an angel. He (or in some cases she) flies around with St. Nicholas and delivers presents.
Martin Luther tried to make it the Protestant Christmas tradition, during the reformation. He hoped it would bring attention back to the true meaning of Christmas.
The Christkind was Americanized as Kris Kringle, and applied to Santa.
Well, that’s it everybody! See you next time- on Imaginary Creature Authority!
Why did A, B, C, and D get coal in their stockings?
Because they were Not E!