Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, or simply Santa.

He is a legendary figure originating in Western Christian culture who is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved children on Christmas Eve (24 December) and the early morning hours of Christmas Day (25 December).

The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding the historical Saint Nicholas (a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra), the British figure of Father Christmas and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (himself also based on Saint Nicholas).

Some maintain Santa Claus also absorbed elements of the Germanic god Wodan, who was associated with the pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.

Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, jolly, white-bearded man—sometimes with spectacles—wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, a red hat with white fur and black leather belt and boots and who carries a bag full of gifts for children.

This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children’s books, films, and advertising.

Santa Claus is said to make lists of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior and to deliver presents, including toys, and candy to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and coal to all the misbehaved children, on the single night of Christmas Eve.

He accomplishes this feat with the aid of his elves, who make the toys in his workshop at the North Pole, and his flying reindeer, who pull his sleigh.

Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia.

Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.

He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In continental Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany) he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.

The remains of Saint Nicholas are in Italy. He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.

During the Middle Ages, often on the evening before his name day of 6 December, children have bestowed gifts in his honor. This date was earlier than the original day of gifts for the children, which moved in the course of the Reformation and its opposition to the veneration of saints in many countries on the 24th and 25 December.

So Saint Nicholas changed to Santa Claus. The custom of gifting to children at Christmas has been propagated by Martin Luther as an alternative to the previous very popular gift custom on St. Nicholas, to focus the interest of the children to Christ instead of the veneration of saints.

Martin Luther first suggested the Christkind as the bringer of gifts. But Nicholas remained popular as gifts bearer for the people.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur.

He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to the 25th of December to coincide with Christmas Day.

Dutch, Belgian and Swiss folklore

In the Netherlands and Belgium, the character of Santa Claus has to compete with that of Sinterklaas, Santa’s presumed progenitor.

Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman in Dutch (“the Christmas man“) and Père Noël (“Father Christmas“) in French.

But for children in the Netherlands Sinterklaas remains the predominant gift-giver in December; 36% of the Dutch only give presents on Sinterklaas evening or the day itself (December 6), whereas Christmas (December 25) is used by another 21% to give presents.

Some 26% of the Dutch population gives presents on both days. In Belgium, Sinterklaas day presents are offered exclusively to children, whereas on Christmas Day, all ages may receive presents. Sinterklaas’ assistants are called “Zwarte Pieten“, so they are not elves.

In Switzerland, Pères Fouettard accompanies Père Noël in the French-speaking region, while the sinister Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus in the Swiss German region. Schmutzli carries a twig broom to spank the naughty children.

Germanic paganism, Wodan, and Christianization

Prior to Christianization, the Germanic peoples (including the English) celebrated a midwinter event called Yule.

With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas.

During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.

The leader of the wild hunt is frequently attested as the god Wodan (Norse Odin), bearing (among many names) the names Jólnir, meaning “Yule figure“, and Langbarðr, meaning “long-beard“, in Old Norse.

Wodan’s role during the Yuletide period has been theorized as having influenced concepts of St. Nicholas in a variety of facets, including his long white beard and his gray horse for nightly rides (compare Odin’s horse Sleipnir) or his reindeer in North American tradition.

Folklorist Margaret Baker maintains that:

“the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. […] Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage.”

In Finland, Santa Claus is called Joulupukki (direct translation ‘Christmas Goat’).

Calvinist and Puritan opposition

Santa Claus has partial Christian roots in Saint Nicholas, particularly in the high church denominations that practice the veneration of him, in addition to other saints.

In light of this, the character has sometimes been the focus of controversy over the holiday and its meanings. Some Christians, particularly Calvinists and Puritans, disliked the idea of Santa Claus, as well as Christmas in general, believing that the lavish celebrations were not in accordance with their faith.

Other nonconformist Christians condemn the materialist focus of contemporary gift giving and see Santa Claus as the symbol of that culture.

Condemnation of Christmas was prevalent among the 17th-century English Puritans and Dutch Calvinists who banned the holiday as either pagan or Roman Catholic. The American colonies established by these groups reflected this view.

Tolerance for Christmas increased after the Restoration but the Puritan opposition to the holiday persisted in New England for almost two centuries. In the Dutch New Netherland colony, season celebrations focused on New Year’s Day.

Excerpt from Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England; Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Following the Restoration of the monarchy and with Puritans out of power in England,[110] the ban on Christmas was satirized in works such as Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas; Together with his Clearing by the Jury (1686).

Reverend Paul Nedergaard, a clergyman in Copenhagen, Denmark, attracted controversy in 1958 when he declared Santa to be a “pagan goblin” (“en hedensk trold” in Danish) after Santa’s image was used on the annual Christmas stamp (“julemærke“) for a Danish children’s welfare organization. A number of denominations of Christians have varying concerns about Santa Claus, which range from acceptance to denouncement.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement, wrote:

“the children should not be taught that Santa Claus has aught to do with this [Christmas] pastime. Deceit or falsehood is never wise. Too much cannot be done towards guarding and guiding well the germinating and inclining thought of childhood. To mould aright the first impressions of innocence, aids in perpetuating purity and in unfolding the immortal model, a man in His image and likeness.”

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.