Sunday, 7 December 2014

Sunday December 7th, 2014 The Origins of Santa Claus

When you’re out and about during the month of December, you are sure to come across Santa Claus. While today Santa is a fairly well-known figure, he wasn’t always. Have you ever wondered where he came from? Then look no further - the library has the answers.

One of the most well-known origin stories is that St. Nicholas became Santa Claus. We don’t know a whole lot about St. Nicholas the man beyond a few basics, like that he was born in Asia Minor around 280 AD. He came from a wealthy family, but ended up giving a lot of his money to charity and becoming a bishop at a young age. When the Roman Emperor Diocletian declared himself a god, St. Nicholas and the other Christians were imprisoned for refusing to worship him. When Diocletian resigned several years later, the new Emperor, Constantine, released them. So how did a holy man like Nicholas become Santa Claus? After his death, people began telling stories about his generosity and the miracles he performed. In one story, he anonymously gave a man money for his daughters’ dowries. In another, he flew through the sky to calm a storm and save a ship. Even the name “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch word for St. Nicholas (“Sintaklaas”). All of this and more can be found in James Cross Giblin’s book The Truth About Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas isn’t the only gift-giver who evolved into Santa Claus. If you flip through George Ouwendijk’s Santas of the World, you’ll discover a whole bunch, including the Finnish Joulupukki, the French Pere Noel, and Japan’s Hoteiosho. One particularly interesting gift-giver is the German Christkindl. Germans believed that gifts were brought by the Christ child. Over time, the Christkindl’s name became simplified to Kriss Kringle, which was later associated with Santa Claus thanks to the movie Miracle on 34th Street.

Another interesting Santa-figure is Father Christmas. The original figure of Father Christmas became popular in England after people there stopped worshipping St. Nicholas. While you may think this makes Father Christmas a relatively new gift-giver, he is in fact older than St. Nicholas! Father Christmas comes to us from the Roman god, Saturn, who presided over their winter feast. Over time he evolved into Father Christmas, who in turn is evolving to resemble the modern, North American version of Santa Claus.

Santa Claus isn’t the only Christmas figure who has evolved. Before Santa had his elves, reindeer, or his wife, he was followed by Black Peter in Holland. Black Peter was believed to be the devil, who was defeated by St. Nicholas and had to serve him. He carried a trunk for St. Nicholas full of presents for the good children and birch rods for the bad children. Black Peter is similar to the German Knecht Rupprecht, who was also known as Pelznickle or Ru-Klas. In Austria, there is a similar figure, known as Krampus. Krampus was originally a demon who wandered the Austrian forests. But he became the companion of St. Nicholas, who punished the bad children with his wooden stick. Luckily St. Nicholas is compassionate and will spare any children the wrath of Krampus if they promise to be good.

Of course, these facts are just the tip of the iceberg. If you flip through either Santas of the World or The Truth About Santa Claus, you’ll find far more than I’ve mentioned here. And we have many other books on how Santa Claus came to be, including Santa Claus: a Biography by Gerald Bowler on Overdrive, The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guin on Hoopla, and The Story of Santa Klaus by William Shepard Walsh in Reference.

Shauna Kosoris

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