The Magic of Christmas and the Many Faces of Jolly old Saint Nick.

By Hayley White I was 11 years old when the illusion of Santa Claus was ruined for me forever. Like most kids my age, I was caught up in the excitement and magic of Christmas. My brother, my cousins, and I were put to bed, but try as I might, I just could not get myself to relax enough to fall asleep. I tossed and turned all night until I heard the grownups talking and laughing. When I peered down the hallway, I saw right into the living room where I saw my family gathered around the coffee table where us kiddies left all the goodies for Santa and his reindeer. I watched as my uncle and my aunties ate Santa’s cookies and drank the milk. And I watched as I saw my mum write out Santa’s letter on the coffee table. Up until then, I had adamantly believed that Santa was real. It was my belief in Santa that made Christmas so magical, as it does for kids all around the world. But why are we telling children about an imaginary man who delivers presents via magic flying reindeer? Where did he originate from? The legend of Santa Claus did not just appear out of thin air. In fact, there are a handful of different origins the big, jolly, red fella can be traced back to.

By Hayley White

I was 11 years old when the illusion of Santa Claus was ruined for me forever. Like most kids my age, I was caught up in the excitement and magic of Christmas. My brother, my cousins, and I were put to bed, but try as I might, I just could not get myself to relax enough to fall asleep. I tossed and turned all night until I heard the grownups talking and laughing. When I peered down the hallway, I saw right into the living room where I saw my family gathered around the coffee table where us kiddies left all the goodies for Santa and his reindeer. I watched as my uncle and my aunties ate Santa’s cookies and drank the milk. And I watched as I saw my mum write out Santa’s letter on the coffee table.

Up until then, I had adamantly believed that Santa was real. It was my belief in Santa that made Christmas so magical, as it does for kids all around the world. But why are we telling children about an imaginary man who delivers presents via magic flying reindeer? Where did he originate from? The legend of Santa Claus did not just appear out of thin air. In fact, there are a handful of different origins the big, jolly, red fella can be traced back to.

A Julbock Yule goat on a Christmas tree
Photo: Pilecka

Even before the Christian invention of Christmas, Germanic cultures celebrated what was known as Yule (Jol or Jul). It spanned from late December to the first day of January in celebration of the winter solstice and was the oldest winter celebration in the world. Yule had various versions of Santa, though they were vastly different. Nordic religions in Scandinavia incorporated the bock into their celebrations. The bock was a goat connected to Thor, the Norse god of thunder, and it somehow became popular to create straw goats during Jul.

This was possibly because the spirit of the harvest was supposed to reside in the last bundle of grain, so it was saved for Jul where some would be used to create the Julbock, the Yule goat. A Yule tradition developed where someone would knock on the door of a house, leave a Julbock with a scrap of verse on the doorstep, and then run away. The tradition became known as Julklapp but became less common in the 19thcentury. Eventually, Swedish families would have someone either dressing up as the Julbock to distribute presents, or at least wearing a goat’s mask.

A tomte eating porridge

Around the middle of the 19th century, most Swedes were farmers, and believed that every farm was occupied with an ancestral spirit. They believed that the spirit of the first farmer who owned or occupied the land stayed to protect the land and everyone on it, but remained out of sight. This spirit was called a tomte, modelled after the word tomt meaning plot of land. A tomte was often depicted as a small, elderly man the size of a toddler with a long white beard wearing rough, grey clothes and a red, pointed hat. If the animals or the farm were treated poorly or anyone used foul language, tomte were said to cause trouble and become fiery-tempered or mischievous when displeased. It was wise to respect them, so the farm would be protected from disasters and accidents. If the farm was well looked after, the tomte did not ask for much in return, just a bowl of porridge with a large dollop of butter every now and then. This bowl of porridge was most important on Christmas; if the bowl was empty on Christmas morning, everyone believed the farm would be well for another whole year (Duxbury, n.d.).

Saint Nicholas

Another such origin is the story of Saint Nicholas, a Turkish bishop who received a sainthood and became the Dutch patron saint of children and the innocent. When Nicholas was born in the 4th century, he proved that he was not a normal child by standing up in his first bath as a newborn. He spent all his time in church as soon as he could walk and did not bother with other kids his own age. According to legend, bishops gathered to find a new successor when the bishop of Myra died. One person heard a holy voice that told them the first person named Nicholas who entered the church in the morning was destined to be the next bishop. Lo and behold, Nicholas walked into the church before sunrise and fulfilled his destiny.

The first link Saint Nicholas had to gift-giving was when he saved the chastity of three young women. When his rich parents died, Nicholas tried to find a way to use his wealth. He found out that one of his next-door neighbours was about to sell his three daughters into prostitution to live off the earnings. This horrified Nicholas. So, over the course of three nights, he dropped a bag of gold into his neighbour’s window. One bag to pay for each daughter to save them from a life of sin. On the third night, the man sought Nicholas to beg forgiveness, which Nicholas granted (Siefker, 2006).

There’s a belief that Santa gave lumps of coal to naughty children. In the Netherlands, however, Saint Nicholas did not leave pieces of coal; rather, he left sticks. In a certain church, monks wanted the responses (parts of a religious liturgy) of Saint Nicholas sung. When the abbot refused, claiming that the music was worldly and profane and never to be sung in his church, Saint Nicholas flew in such a rage that he descended from heaven and beat the abbot with a birch rod until he nearly died. From that day, the responses were included (Siefker, 2006).

Saint Nicholas and Black Peter

When Saint Nicholas travelled to distant lands to visit all the children, he had an entourage of slaves, one of whom was Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). Zwarte Piet was made to look dark-skinned and was dressed as a Spanish pirate of the 16th century, influenced by the historic fact that Holland was ruled by the Spanish during that time. Zwarte Piet always carried a bundle of sticks (rods) and a bag full of presents. Children were told that if they’d been naughty that year, they would be punished (with the rod) and put in the bag by Zwarte Piet to be taken to Spain; but if they’d been good, they would receive sweets and presents.

In parts of central Europe, Black Peter was a devilish figure; hairy, horned, blackened, and chained to Nicholas as his slave. When Saint Nicholas arrived, he would quiz the children on scripture. If they were successful, they got a gift. If they were not, and had been bad throughout the year, they were scared by the growling Peter as he leapt towards them with a large sack in his claws, flashing his canines and threatening to beat them with his rod. Saint Nicholas always saved bad children, so he gave them sticks or ashes instead of handing them over to Black Peter’s “ultimate vengeance” (Siefker, 2006, p. 11).

But with the migration of the Dutch over to America, and Saint Nicholas with them, Santa Claus was modelled after the German Pelznichol, translated into “furry Nicholas” by German immigrants in Pennsylvania celebrating Yule. Pelznickol, Bellschniggle or Bellsnickle, as he was also known, would be dressed in fur from head to toe – and by fur, they meant animal skins.

Pelznickol was not one person; rather, there were a multitude of Pelznickols running around during Christmas and opinions varied widely whether they were jolly and jovial or scary and beastly. Pelznickol would go from house to house with a whip in his hands, giving gifts to well-behaved children and whipping the naughty ones. Though his appearance varied, he was almost always black-faced, dressed in animal skins or patches adorned with jingling bells, and carrying a whip or bag. In December 1827, the Philadelphia Gazette describes Bellschniggle, saying: “It is no sooner dark than the Bellschniggle is heard flitting from house to house … He slips down the chimney, at the fairy hour of midnight, and deposits his presents quietly in the prepared stocking” (as cited in Siefker, 2006, p. 19).

The blending of Pelznickol and Saint Nicholas formed the present-day Santa Claus. After publication of the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (better known today as The Night Before Christmas) in 1823, various other stories about Santa Claus fleshed out his current-day image. When Bavarian immigrant cartoonist Thomas Nast’s version of Santa was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, Santa appeared as how we see him now. The drawing was created during the Civil War and so Santa was patriotically dressed in red, for the American Flag.

In the 1920s, soft drink company Coca-Cola took up this image of Santa Claus in red. In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted Santa Claus drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola in a department store. The following year, Coca-Cola officially commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa specifically for Christmas advertisements. From the ‘30s through to the ‘60s, Coca-Cola showed Santa going about delivering toys, visiting children who stayed up late to meet him, reading letters while enjoying a bottle of Coke, and raiding refrigerators. Sundblom’s Santa was the basis for a TV commercial of the ‘Coca-Cola Santa’ released in 2001 (Coca-Cola, n.d.).

There has been growing criticism around allowing children to believe in Santa Claus. Some reckon it is unfair to let them believe in an imaginary man who brings them presents. Other parents help their children to believe in Santa because of the joy and happiness he brings to Christmas. He is an excellent example of generosity and kindness that many would hope their children look up to.

 

Sources: 1. Five things you never knew about Santa Claus and Coca-Cola, coca-colacompany.com 2. Jultomten (The Swedish version of Father Christmas), swedishfood.com 3. Santa Claus, last of the wild men: The origins and evolution of Saint Nicholas, spanning 50,000 years, McFarland

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