What has happened to Santa Claus? Where did that jovial fellow in red, who has been telling you that “holidays are coming” for the last month, go? But before you disregard Santa completely due to his multi-national corporate affiliations, reconsider.
Once upon a time there was a devout Christian called Nicholas who loved to spread goodwill to the poor over the festive season. One year he gave gold and cookies to an old man who was so poor he was about to sell his daughters into prostitution. St. Nick saved these women’s virginity, and after his death was canonised.
This saint made his way into the legends of the Germanic tribes during the middle ages. Dutch Sint Nikolaas comes from Spain each year with several ‘Zwarte Piets’ (Black Peters), Moorish slaves that St. Nicolas freed. This now controversial and racist tale tells of St. Nick coming on the eve of his own death to give good children presents, whilst the Zwarte Piets steal away naughty children in sacks. The new, only slightly more politically correct version, describes the Black Peters as modern servants who are black from the chimneys they descend.
The country to which Santa owes the most for his modern identity is America, particularly New York. Originally a Dutch colony, New York was left with a mix of British and Dutch mythology. ‘Santa Claus’ is an Anglicisation of Sinterklaas, which in turn is a bastardisation of Sint Nikolaas. The turning point for Santa was when the New York Sentinel published ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’. This famous poem (now known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) brought together the idea of a ‘sleigh full of toys’ with Santa’s ‘beard white as snow’, and his ‘round belly’. Santa’s red robes and general image were further established by Coca-Cola’s advertising campaign, whose conception of Santa still prevails today.
Just as England originally celebrated not Santa Claus but a more general entity called Father Christmas, many parts of the world continue to do so. In Russia, people speak of Ded Moroz, a character who emerged as an alternative to St. Nicholas. He too had a long beard and only visits good boys and girls. Ded Moroz was especially popular during the Soviet era, because of his secularity and differences from the Western Santa Claus. He was given blue robes instead of red ones, to further the contrast between Western and Russian ideas. Siberians tell of another version of events, wherein a shaman enters homes via the chimney during the holiday season. This flying shaman carries a sack of mushrooms and hangs them to dry in front of fireplaces.
This festive season, I advise you to ignore Coca-Cola’s all-penetrating vision of red heartiness (St. Nick would have thought it too sugary anyway) and instead celebrate one of the other alternatives. Personally, I’m looking forward to a half-blind Odin and his fatigued horse Sleipnir in my living room on Christmas Eve.