Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and quite simply, Santa, is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical, and folkloric origins who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve, December 24th. The modern figure was derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, which, in turn, may have part of its basis in hagiographical tales concerning the historical figure of gift giver Saint Nicholas. A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek and Byzantine folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1st is considered the time of exchanging gifts in Greece.
Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, joyous, white-bearded man, sometimes with spectacles and wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots.
According to a tradition which can be traced to the 1820s, Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, with a large number of magical elves, and nine (originally eight) flying reindeer. Since the 20th century, in an idea popularized by the 1934 song “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, Santa Claus has been believed to make a list of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior (“Naughty or Nice”) and to deliver presents, including toys and candy to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and sometimes coal to the naughty children, on the single night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of the elves who make the toys in the workshop, located at the North Pole and the reindeer who pull his sleigh.
Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. 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 and Germany) he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. In 1087, the Italian city of Bari, wanting to enter the profitable pilgrimage industry of the times, mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Christian Saint and procure his remains. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was desecrated by Italian sailors and the spoils, including his relics, taken to Bari where they are kept to this day. A basilica was constructed the same year to store the loot and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout, thus justifying the economic cost of the expedition. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers. He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.
Pre-modern representations of the gift-giver from church history and folklore, notably St. Nicholas and Sinterklaas, merged with the British character Father Christmas to create the character known to Britons and Americans as Santa Claus. Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain, and pictures of him survive from that era, portraying him as a jolly well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and was reflected as the “Ghost of Christmas Present”, in Charles Dickens’s festive classic “A Christmas Carol”, a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace. In the British colonies of North America and later the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. For example, in Washington Irving’s “History of New York” (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into “Santa Claus” (a name first used in the American press in 1773) but lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. Irving’s book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention.
As the years passed, Santa Claus evolved in popular culture into a large, heavyset person. One of the first artists to define Santa Claus's modern image was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. In 1863, a picture of Santa illustrated by Nast appeared in Harper’s Weekly.
The story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation. His Christmas image in the Harper’s issue dated December 29th, 1866 was a collage of engravings titled “Santa Claus and His Works, which included the caption “Santa Claussville, N.P.” A color collection of Nast's pictures, published in 1869, had a poem also titled “Santa Claus and His Works” by George P. Webster, who wrote that Santa Claus’s home was “near the North Pole, in the ice and snow”. The tale had become well known by the 1870s. A boy from Colorado writing to the children's magazine “The Nursery in late 1874 said, “If we did not live so very far from the North Pole, I should ask Santa Claus to bring me a donkey.”
The idea of a wife for Santa Claus may have been the creation of American authors, beginning in the mid-1800s. In 1889, the poet Katherine Lee Bates popularized Mrs. Claus in the poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride“.
“Is There a Santa Claus?“ was the title of an editorial appearing in the September 21st, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus“, has become an indelible part of popular Christmas lore in the United States and Canada.
The tradition of Santa Claus entering dwellings through the chimney is shared by many European seasonal gift-givers. In pre-Christian Norse tradition, Odin would often enter through chimneys and fire-holes on the solstice. In the Italian Befana tradition, the gift-giving witch is perpetually covered with soot from her trips down the chimneys of children's homes. In the tale of Saint Nicholas, the saint tossed coins through a window, and, in a later version of the tale, down a chimney when he finds the window locked. In Dutch artist Jan Steen’s painting, “The Feast of Saint Nicholas”, adults and toddlers are glancing up a chimney with amazement on their faces while other children play with their toys. The hearth was held sacred in primitive belief as a source of beneficence, and popular belief had elves and fairies bringing gifts to the house through this portal. Santa's entrance into homes on Christmas Eve via the chimney was made part of American tradition through Moore's “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” where the author described him as an elf.
By the end of the 20th century, the reality of mass mechanized production became more fully accepted by the Western public. That shift was reflected in the modern depiction of Santa's residence - now often humorously portrayed as a fully mechanized production and distribution facility, equipped with the latest manufacturing technology, and overseen by the elves with Santa and Mrs. Claus as executives and/or managers.
The North American traditions associated with Santa Claus are derived from a number of Christmas traditions from various countries. Some rituals (such as visiting a department store Santa) occur in the weeks and days before Christmas while others, such as preparing snacks for Santa, are specific to Christmas Eve. Some rituals, such as setting out stockings to be filled with gifts, are age-old traditions while others, such as NORAD's tracking of Santa's sleigh through the night skies on Christmas Eve, are modern inventions.
Writing letters to Santa Claus has been a Christmas tradition for children for many years. These letters normally contain a wish list of toys and assertions of good behavior. Some social scientists have found that boys and girls write different types of letters. Girls generally write longer but more polite lists and express the nature of Christmas more in their letters than in letters written by boys. Girls also more often request gifts for other people.
In the United States and Canada, children traditionally leave Santa a glass of milk and a plate of cookies; in Britain and Australia, he is sometimes given sherry and mince pies instead. In Sweden and Norway, children leave rice porridge. In Ireland it is popular to give him Guinness or milk, along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
So, all of you kiddies and “big” kiddies alike, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout and I’m telling you why … Santa Claus is coming to town ….
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