"He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake." Known for delivering presents to children around the world in one magical night on Christmas Eve, riding a reindeer-driven sleigh and wearing a red suit, Santa Claus is one of the oldest mythical icons in history. Just who is this Santa Claus and why are there so many Christmas songs, poems and stories about his extraordinary behavior?
The legend of Santa Claus dates back to a monk named Saint Nicholas who was born approximately 280 A.D. Saint Nicholas' popularity spread from present day Turkey throughout Europe and later the world. He became known as the "protector of children" and giver of gifts to the poor (Encarta, 2008). As news of his generosity traveled, his name changed from place to place, as did variations of the stories surrounding him. The fundamentals of rewarding well-behaved children with presents of their hearts' desires remained the same.
This generous man was called Sankt Nikolaus in Germany and Sanct Herr Nicholaas, Sint Nikolaas and Sinterklaas in Holland. The name Santa Claus evolved from Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. Christkindl evolved to Kriss Kringle, another nomenclature for Santa Claus. Père Noël in France, Julenisse in Scandinavia, Father Christmas in England, and even the female bringers of presents: Italian La Befana and the Russian Babouschka, bare semblance to Santa. A culmination of the folklore depicting the numerous characters helped to create the American version of Santa Claus brought to New York by the Dutch in the 1600s.
The 17th century Saint Nicholas rode through the sky on a horse (Encarta, 2008). The gift delivering, jolly, Scandinavian elf rode a sleigh drawn by goats. Father Christmas filled stockings with holiday treats, and La Befana, Halloween meets Christmas, rode a broomstick down the chimneys of Italian homes delivering toys to children. Though not quite the Santa Claus we all know, there are some similar features.
By 1823, Clement Clarke Moore put Santa's detailed description to prose in the poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" also known as "The Night Before Christmas." The 19th century depiction of Santa Claus is the cookie eating, jolly fat man in a red velvet suit with fuzzy white trim and matching hat atop snow-white hair. Santa has a full beard and rosy cheeks, in spite of the pure white facial hair. There are images of him in shiny black leather boots with corresponding wide waist belt. With stealth-like agility, Santa Claus strolls across rooftops and glides down chimneys. Through magic, he never gets stuck. (History.com, 2008).
Santa Claus has a protruding jelly belly, which developed through centuries of cookie, cocoa and milk consumption. Santa's portliness went unnoticed until the illustrations by Thomas Nast in the late 1800s. By the 19th century, there is the introduction of Santa Claus' "Ho, Ho, Ho", winks, nods and finger taps to the side of his nose for chimney navigation. All of which add imaginary depth to this fictitious character. Around this time, the goats morph into eight reindeer, then nine by 1939 with the introduction of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
Additionally, Santa's companion, Mrs. Claus, came on the scene. Santa set up shop at the North Pole, switching from an elf-like character to a larger than life human-sized overseer of the elf community. The toy workshop was created to fill orders from millions of letters sent by children around the world. Kids everywhere tried hard to be nice since the naughty had their own list for lumps of coal rather than their heart's desire of a bicycle, doll or toy car. The same gifts are desired of Santa Claus today, although naughty children no longer appear to be blacklisted.