Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Père Noël, Father Christmas, Santa Claus… whatever you call him, he’s on the way. If your house is home to the young (or young at heart) he will be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and his presence in the shops reminds us all we need to prepare the reindeer food.
Celluloid Santa, early 20th century
When we think of Santa we think of the kind, portly, older gentleman with a bushy beard and red suit, driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer and delivering gifts to well-behaved children. This image is older than we might think and is not entirely the work of The Coca-Cola Company, but is an amalgamation of several cultures’ beliefs and legends dating back hundreds of years.
The legend originates with Saint Nicholas in the 4th century. Even as a young boy in Greece, Nicholas was very religious and he grew up to enter the Church and eventually become a Bishop. He is usually depicted with a white beard, and was well known for his generosity and his gifts to the poor. After his canonisation he became known as Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors, archers, and pawnbrokers.
In the Middle Ages children were given gifts in honour of Saint Nicholas on the eve of his name day, 6 December. During the Reformation this date was transferred to the date of veneration for the saints on 24–25 December. Martin Luther encouraged the custom of giving gifts to children on this day and tried to the divert attention to Christ rather than the saints, even attempting to introduce the Christ Child as the giver of the gifts, but Saint Nicholas remained the preferred gift-giver of the people.
Sketch on the reverse of a 1917 painting
Pre-Christian Germanic peoples celebrated Yule in midwinter and many aspects of this celebration have carried through to modern times. Yule was thought to be a time of year when supernatural activity increased, the highlight of which was the ‘Wild Hunt’ where Odin led a ghostly group through the sky. Odin was a major god who was often depicted with a long white beard and a robe, usually blue, and rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipner when he visited his people with gifts. Although the hunt has changed to a dedicated delivery trip, the flight through the sky and long beard have remained, and reindeer have replaced the horse’s legs.
Yule involved other observations as well: the burning of the Yule Log; eating the Yule Boar; wassailing; and celebrating the Yule Goat. These days a few changes have evolved: we eat the Christmas chocolate log; the traditional Christmas ham remains; carolling is still carried out; but for many the celebration of the goat has been reduced to a figure in a nativity scene or a tree decoration.
Mechanical toy of Santa Claus playing the organ, originally from the Londontown Department Store then given to the Wanganui Hospital Children’s Ward before being donated to the Museum
Sinterklaas is a Dutch figure based on Saint Nicholas who dates back to the Middle Ages. He is portrayed as an older man with a long white beard who wears a red robe, ring, and mitre, and carries a large book which lists the behaviour of every child. Sinterklaas is celebrated by giving gifts to children on the eve or morning of 6 December, often including chocolate letters and spiced biscuits. He is still celebrated by many people today, and some children are lucky enough to receive gifts from both Sinterklaas on 6 December and Santa Claus on 25 December.
Father Christmas made his appearance in 16th century England during Henry VIII’s reign. He was a large, jolly man who wore green or red robes with fur lining and was the epitome of good cheer bringing peace, joy, food, wine, and festivity. He was celebrated on 25 December when England dropped the Feast of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, and the Victorian era saw a surge in his popularity.
Eventually, Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas merged into one being. The name ‘Santa Claus’ first appeared in an American publication in 1773, depicting a large man wearing a green winter coat. Admittedly this initial figure was a satirical dig at Dutch culture in New York but it started a new craze.
In 1821 a book titled A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published and included a poem called ‘Old Santeclaus’, illustrating an old man on a sleigh pulled by reindeer who gave presents to children. Then the well-known A Visit from St. Nicholas (commonly referred to as The Night Before Christmas) came out in 1823 and described the man we know and love: the fat, jolly, bearded man who drove a sleigh pulled by reindeer, landed on the roof, magically shimmied down the chimney with a bag of gifts and left some of them for children to discover in the morning. This biggest change from this image is that Santa has grown from a miniature elf to a full-sized man.
Pictorial Christmas Card from Aunt May to her niece Hilda, dated 1892
Many people believe that Santa wears red due to a highly successful advertising campaign by The Coca-Cola Company during the 1930s, but he has been wearing red since before the drink was invented. The Middle Ages Sinterklaas and 16th century Father Christmas both wore red, and he wore red and white robes in advertisements for White Rock Beverages in 1915. And prior to that Santa also appeared in his signature colour on the cover of Punch magazine several times, well before Coca-Cola used it.
So be good, listen out for sleigh bells on Wednesday night, and have a very Merry Christmas from everyone at the Whanganui Regional Museum.