Santa Claus 

The well-known, red-suited, roly-poly, jolly American symbol of festive cheer and commercial activity emerges from historical, mythological, and legendary figures in folklore. Historically, Santa is probably based on the kindly Christian Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra,124 who lived during the fourth century CE. 

St. Nicholas was well known for the many miracles attributed to him and his acts of kindness, especially towards children. He also had a reputation for gift giving. A legend about him recounts how he went to the homes of those living in abject poverty and threw several coins through the smoke holes in their roofs. On one specific occasion, the gold pieces fell into stockings left hanging to dry, instead of landing in the hearth. This is believed by many to have given rise to the traditional belief that Santa comes down the chimney on Christmas morning to fill stockings, which expectant children have left out for him. It is, however, likely that this legend evolved to distract from the deeply ingrained parallel pagan story told of the god, Odin.

Many comparisons have been drawn between Santa and the Nordic Odin, chief god in Norse mythology, before Christianisation. The Anglo-Saxons knew him as Wodan, and during the winter solstice festival known as Yule, Odin, riding his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, was thought to command a great hunting party across the heavens. This led to comparisons with Santa’s procession of reindeer. A further point of comparison is that it was customary during this time of the year for children to leave their boots filled with carrots and straw near the smoke hole as fodder for Odin’s horse. To show his appreciation, Odin is said to have rewarded their thoughtfulness by placing gifts inside the boots. This custom continued in northern European countries after Christianisation, became linked with St. Nicholas, and is still seen in homes when children hang their stockings by the chimney, to be filled with presents. 

The legend of the kindly Saint Nicholas travelled from Myrna (modern-day Turkey) to northern European countries, and the saint eventually became a popular figure in Holland where he was known as Sinterklaas. The Dutch brought Sinterklaas to the New World, and around 1870, the Americans turned the name into Santa Claus. Sometime later, this celebrated character merged with the Elizabethan Father Christmas, a jolly old man, who the British believed provided the Christmas feast. He is still known as Father Christmas in the United Kingdom and Europe, although his depiction is identical to the American Santa. Another interesting fact is that the two characters live in different locations – Father Christmas residing in Finland, while the American Santa purportedly lives at the North Pole.

Santa’s present depiction as a rotund white-bearded old man dressed in a red-and-white outfit eventually emerged in the 1920s, after portrayals by dozens of artists. This new image, however, was universalised by none other than Coca-Cola in their 1931 advertising campaign, as Santa matched Coca-Cola’s red-and-white logo. Encouraging Americans that Coke was the solution to a ‘thirst for all seasons’ entrenched Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture.


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