Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle or simply "Santa", is a legendary figure who, in manyWestern cultures, brings gifts to the homes of the good children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve, December 24 or on his Feast Day, December 6 (Saint Nicholas Day). The legend may have part of its basis in hagiographical tales concerning the historical figure of gift giver Saint Nicholas. A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek and Byzantine folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1 is considered the time of exchanging gifts in Greece.
While Saint Nicholas was originally portrayed wearing bishop's robes, today Santa Claus is generally depicted as a plump, jolly, white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots. This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. (Pictured right: 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, with Clement Clarke Moore, helped to create the modern image of santa Claus).This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, and films. In the United Kingdom and Europe, his depiction is often identical to the American Santa, but he is commonly called Father Christmas.
One legend associated with Santa says that he lives in the far north, in a land of perpetual snow. The American version of Santa Claus says that he lives at his house on the North Pole, while Father Christmas is often said to reside in the mountains of Korvatunturi in Lapland Province, Finland. Santa Claus lives with his wife Mrs. Claus, a countless number of magic elves, and eight or nine flying reindeer. Another legend of Santa says that he makes a list of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior ("naughty" or "nice") and that he delivers presents, including toys, candy, and other gifts to all of the good boys and girls in the world, and sometimes coal to the naughty children, on the single night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of the elves who make the toys in the workshop and the reindeer who pull his sleigh.
There has long been some opposition to teaching children to believe in Santa Claus. Some Christians say the Santa tradition detracts from the religious origins and purpose of Christmas. Other critics feel that Santa Claus is an elaborate lie, and that it is unethical for parents to teach their children to believe in his existence Still others oppose Santa Claus as a symbol of the commercialization of the Christmas holiday, or as an intrusion upon their own national traditions. Others point out that the Claus tradition is a good example of how children can learn that they may be deliberately misled by their elders; this will help teach them to be cautious about accepting any other superstition or unsubstantiated belief.
Early Christian origins
A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from the Boyana Church, near Sofia, Bulgaria,
Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Santa Claus. He was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, 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. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. In 1087, the Italian city of Bari, wanting to enter the profitable pilgrimage industry of the times, mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Christian Saint and procure the remains. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was desecrated by Italian sailors and the spoils, including his relics, taken to Bari 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, thus justifying the economic cost of the expedition. Saint Nicholas became claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers and children to pawnbrokers He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.
Influence of Germanic paganism and folklore
Numerous parallels have been drawn between Santa Claus and the figure of Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic peoples prior to their Christinization. Since many of these elements are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Santa Claus.
Odin was sometimes recorded, at the native Germanic holiday of Yule, as leading a great hunting party through the sky. Two books from Iceland, the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, describe Odin as riding an eight-legged horse named sleipnir that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus's reindeer. Further, Odin was referred to by many names in Sladic poetry, some of which describe his appearance or functions; these include Síðgrani, Síðskeggr, Langbarðr, (all meaning "long beard") and Jólnir ("Yule figure").
According to Phyllis Siefker, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy. This practice survived in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas as a result of the process of Christianization and can be still seen in the modern practice of the hanging of stockings at the chimney in some homes.
This practice in turn came to the United States through the Dutch colony of New terdam prior to the British seizure in the 17th century, and evolved into the hanging of socks or stockings at the fireplace. In many regions of Austria and former Austro-Hungarian Italy (Friuli, city of Trieste) children are given sweets and gifts on Saint Nicholas's Day (San Niccolò in Italian), in accordance with the Catholic calendar, December 6.
Numerous other influences from the pre-Christian Germanic winter celebrations have continued into modern Christmas celebrations such as the Christmas ham, Yule Goat, Yule logs and the Christmas tree.