The Many Faces of Santa Claus

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He might be dashing through the snow and over the rooftops in a few days, but did you know that Santa Claus has not always looked like we imagine him now? Until fairly recently, he was not seen as a large, jolly old man in a red-with-white-trim suit. In fact, some cultures had a much darker image of him. Even now with the international commercialization of the holiday, some cultures have other holiday gift-giving figures that do not relate to Santa at all. So when you are nestled all snug in your beds on Sunday night, keep in mind that the old man who might or might not be climbing down your chimney (or through your window, as most of us don’t have chimneys in South Texas) might not look like you have always imagined!

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The modern Santa Claus can be traced back almost 2,000 years ago to a Greek bishop who  became known as St. Nicholas. It is believed that he was born around 280 A.D. on the Mediterranean Sea in modern-day Turkey. He became a legend for his piety, kindness, and good works, and by the Renaissance had become the most popular saint in Europe, particularly in Holland. By 1200, he had become known as the patron saint of children and would bring them gifts. He took on characteristics of other European deities like the Roman Saturn and Norse Odin, which is how he got his beard and magical flying abilities. He encouraged children to pray and behave, and his feast day was celebrated on December 6th.

After the Protestant Reformation when the role of saints was discouraged across northern Europe, the Church attempted to transfer the role of gift-giver to the baby Jesus and the date of gift-giving was moved to December 25th (Jesus’s birthday). However, since Jesus was just a baby and babies cannot do much, the role of gift-delivery and good behavior-enforcing was sometimes given to a more threatening helper-figure. This was especially popular in Germanic cultures, where they had figures such as Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas).

Krampus Creatures Parade In Search Of Bad Children
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The scary enforcer that we are probably the most familiar with is Krampus, St. Nicholas’s scary counterpart. St. Nicholas was kind and rewarded good children, and Krampus punished naughty children. He had fur, horns, and fangs, would carry a chain with bells, and would swat the naughty children with a bundle of sticks or drag them to his secret lair.  Krampus’s name comes from krampen, the German word for claw, and he shows up the night before December 6th, which is St. Nicholas’s day. In the morning, German children would look inside their shoes to see if they had received presents from St. Nicholas (for good behavior) or a rod from Krampus (for bad behavior).

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Despite the downplaying of saints during the Protestant Reformation, St. Nicholas remained very popular in Holland, and he was introduced to American popular culture in the late 18th century by the Dutch (from Holland) settlers of New York City. The name Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas, which was Sinter Klaas. Although he was known for giving gifts to children and stuffing stockings, he was not yet seen as the jolly and rotund old man wearing a red suit and beard. He would wear shaggy furs and had more of a peddler-like appearance.

A series of writers in the 1800’s made him more widely popular and shaped his image today. Washington Irving’s 1809 book Knickerbocker’s History of New York portrayed Santa as a pipe-smoker soaring over rooftops in a wagon, delivering presents to good children and switches (like the one Krampus had) to bad children. Then in 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas,” it went viral when it was published the next year, and the modern American Christmas was born. However, even there, Santa is still portrayed as a dirty, fur-wearing peddler. Here is his description from the poem:

“He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…”

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It was Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist from the late 1800’s, and Norman Rockwell, a 20th century artist and illustrator, who established Santa’s current image as a red suit-wearing, reindeer-driving resident of the North Pole. This friendlier, more jolly image of Santa Claus then migrated back to Europe, where it began to replace the scarier gift-bringing figures.

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Although the modern image of Santa Claus has spread around the world, there are many cultures where he is not the primary gift-bringing holiday figure. In Russia there is an elderly gift-bringing woman known as Babouschka who visits on January 5th, and in Italy there is a similar figure called La Befana. In the Christian story of Christmas, the three wise men bring gifts to the baby Jesus a short time after his birth. This day (January 6th) is known in English as the Feast of the Epiphany, or Día de los Reyes in Spanish-speaking countries. It is the “12th day of Christmas” and marks the end of the Christmas season. Here on the U.S./Mexico border, we know that Día de los Reyes is a very important holiday in Mexico and is sometimes bigger than December 25th. It is traditionally the day that Christmas gifts are delivered in Spanish-speaking countries, because it commemorates when the Three Wise Men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Instead of Santa, gifts are delivered to children by the three kings, just as they delivered them to Jesus. Just as cookies and milk are sometimes left out for Santa’s snack, hay or grass is sometimes left out for the kings’ camels. A round bread known as the “Rosca de Reyes” is eaten and symbolizes a king’s crown. A little figure of a baby Jesus is hidden inside of it to symbolize how he was hidden from King Herod’s troops, and whoever gets that slice is obligated to host a party on the next religious holiday (February 2nd, Fiesta de la Candelaria).

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Día de los Reyes is celebrated throughout Spain and Latin America. Because Santa Claus comes from Saint Nicholas, who was more popular in northern Europe, Santa Claus never became as big in southern European or Latin American countries as he was in northern Europe or the areas of the United States settled by northern Europeans.

So on the night of the 24th when “visions of sugar-plums dance in your heads,” keep in mind that the old man inside your house delivering gifts might not look like what you thought! He might not be jolly, he might not be a man, and there might be three of him! We hope that you have a joyful holiday season with your friends and family, as we all celebrate our rich and varied traditions around the world.

Learn more here:

The original “The Night Before Christmas” poem

National Geographic article on the history of Santa Claus article on the history of Santa Claus

Historical images of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus

More historical images of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus

Parade Magazine article on Día de los Reyes

Huffington Post article on Día de los Reyes

Mental Floss article on Krampus

Smithsonian Magazine article on Krampus

National Geographic article on Krampus

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