The Origins of Santa Claus

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There are many Origins of Santa Claus

The Santa Claus we know today has origins as far back as the fourth century.  Combining mainly elements from the 4th century life of Saint Nicholas and the ancient mythology of the Germanic figure Odin, Western culture arrived at a composite character with a white beard, a host of little helpers, and a love for gift giving.

Saint Nicholas’contribution to the Santa story (besides giving Santa one of his many aliases) was his generosity. It was said that he would leave coins in the shoes of poor children when they left them out, and most notably he provided the dowry for three poor young women who would have otherwise been forced to the streets as their father became too old to care for them.

Odin is a pagan Germanic god who, according to tradition, would lead a hunting party through the sky during the Germanic holiday of Yule.  He rode a horse that leapt across the sky, probably the inspiration for Santa Claus’ flying reindeer.  Children would leave treats for the horse in their shoes, and Odin would replace the treats with candy or gifts.  Many Christmas traditions survive from the Yule holiday.

Sinterklaas is the Dutch predecessor to the man we now know as Santa Claus.  The Dutch combined fun elements of Odin’s myths with the generosity of Saint Nicholas to create the first white bearded winter holiday figure.  Sinterklaas, for the Dutch and much of Western Europe, represents Saint Nicholas himselfand attends celebrations on Saint Nicholas’ day.  By the end of the 18th century, this combination of ancient figures, and the image and name of Sinterklaas, were translated into North American garb and North American pronunciation – moving us toward the Santa Claus we have today.

The American Santa Claus was originally portrayed in many colors and various statures (sometimes an elf, sometimes a man).  But by the 20th Century, Santa’s image as a red fur suit wearing heavy-set man was cemented, thanks to drawings by political cartoonist Thomas Nash, a story by Frank L. Baum, and a major advertising campaign put out by the Coca-Cola Company (who, despite popular belief, did not choose his red suit color!).  The American newspaper and advertising culture had created a Santa Claus figure who was, and will continue to be, distinctly American.

Today there is much talk over whether the image of Santa has become too commercial.  Santa is depicted as running state-of-the-art toy warehouses, using global shipping services, and even sipping lattes to stay awake for all that toy-making management.  While Santa’s image may be used to sell products (as it has been for a century now), just looking at Santa Claus’s origins should remind us that what he really represents is a sense of wonder for the Christmas holiday seasonand the spirit of generosity.

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