A Brief History of Santa


On the 24th of December every year children
around the world put out milk and cookies in the hopes of luring a magic fat man into
their home who will leave presents behind before sneaking into the house next door. How did such an odd tradition begin? You can pretty much blame Northern Europe,
where the winter weather is cold and dark and depressing. And the coldest and darkest and depressingest
day is the Solstice on December 21st or 22nd when the sun only gives a few hours of weak
light if any at all. These sun-deprived people invented magical
characters to visit them and lighten the mood by bringing gifts and celebrations. These characters ranged from elves to Gods
to goats, but there are two of particular interest to the modern story. The first is St Nick, in The Netherlands.
St Nick is thin and perhaps a bit stern, but still brings presents to children early in
December. He dresses like a bishop in red and white with a staff and rides on a horse
named Amerigo, for whom Dutch children are encouraged to leave out a carrot. St Nick
is called Sinterklaas in Dutch. The second character is Father Christmas from
England. Father Christmas is a big, jolly pagan dressed in green with a holly wreath
on his head. Traditionally he is less concerned with children
and gifts than he is with food and wine and celebration and is perhaps best known for
being one of the three spirits of Christmas who terrorize Scrooge. When Europeans settled the Colonies St Nick
and Father Christmas and the other characters began to mix together. This explains why the US version has so many
names. Santa Claus is the Americanization of Sinterklaas, but he’s also called St Nick
and Father Christmas and Kris Kringle which comes from Germany. In the old world these were different characters,
but in the new world over time they evolved into one which you can see happening in older
stories. For example, the poem, “The Night Before Christmas”
came out in 1823 in New York which established that Santa lands on the roof and fills stocking
with toys. But this Santa is an elf, much like those
from the Nordic Countries. He’s very small and drives a miniature sleigh with tiny reindeer
— which makes a lot more sense for someone whose job description includes fitting down
chimneys. Also, the word, ‘Santa’ appears nowhere in
the poem. The original title is ‘A visit from St Nick’. As the 1800s continued a fat, human looking
immortal Santa evolved into the standard among American authors. It was in the states that
he gained both his elvish workforce and a wife. By about 1900 Santa had developed his current
iconic style. It should be noted that, contrary to popular belief, Coca-Cola didn’t change
his colors to their corporate scheme but instead used the conveniently red-and-white Santa
in 1931 to help sell more soda during their off season. Though Coke didn’t create him their omni-present
ads probably did brand this as the One True Santa in the minds of millions helping spread
him round the world to many cultures with no traditions of winter gift-givers. This American Santa in-turn influenced his
relations in Northern Europe to become more like him, although not always to the pleasure
of the locals. In particular, the British Father Christmas
has been completely assimilated into the Santa collective to the point where many Britons
don’t realize they were ever separate. In the Netherlands, however, St Nick is still
successfully holding his own as a distinct character. The one last detail about modern Santa that’s
still up for debate, at least between countries, is where exactly he lives. In the late 1800s his home was the magnetic
north pole centered under the aurora borealis. While this would be the most diplomatic option
for Santa Magnetic North has since moved off the Polar Ice Sheet and into the Ocean, a
rather inconvenient place to set up a toy factory. So Canada claims his workshop is somewhere
in Nunavut and has given Santa a post code and — no joke — official Canadian citizenship. The American response is that the North Pole
doesn’t refer to the obviously inhospitable sheet of non-domestic ice but rather to the
little town of North Pole, Alaska. Denmark claims he lives in their former colony
of Greenland. And Greenland, not surprisingly, agrees. The Nordic countries quarrel about his exact
location but Finland is the clear winner of this argument with his workshop in Rovaniemi
on the Arctic Circle. For the evidence inclined, you can actually
go visit Santa there and see the elves, toys, reindeer and post office, which makes Finland’s
claim pretty strong. Santa is even available during the off season. But, no matter where he might be based, Santa
still manages to get round the world in just one night to deliver all those presents…
and eat all those cookies.

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