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The Various Cultures That Influenced the History of Santa Claus

Abhijit Naik Dec 17, 2018
A detailed account of the history of Santa Claus, which traces the journey of this legend from Saint Nicholas of Myra to the Santa as we know him today.
Irrespective of whether you are a child or an adult, it is impossible to imagine Christmas without the legendary Santa Claus―a plump, jolly-natured, white-bearded man, wearing a red coat with white cuffs and collars, who moves around the world giving gifts to children on the night before Christmas.
As a child, you must have spent a lot of time wondering whether Santa is real. Today though, you are more likely to be interested in knowing how the legend of Santa come into existence?

Santa Claus History

In the United States and Canada, he is known as Santa Claus, while in the United Kingdom, he is more popular as Father Christmas. Even today, children across the world wait for Santa to get them their well-deserved gift. No wonder, they spend the whole year waiting for him.
Children wait for gifts, adults wait for this moment because it makes Christmas even more special. Though the aforementioned description of Santa aptly describes him as we see him today, it has not always been the same. Whilst going through the history, you will realize that the legendary figure has come a long way to become what he is depicted as today.

St. Nicholas and Sinterklaas

The American Santa Claus draws inspiration from St. Nicholas of Myra as well as the legends of Sinterklaas and Father Christmas from Europe.
St. Nicholas of Myra (present day Turkey, which was then under the Byzantine Empire) was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop renowned for his practice of giving gifts to the poor. One of the numerous legends about this great saint tells how he helped a poor man to marry off his three daughters by gifting three bags of gold coins to him.
St. Nicholas has been an inspiration for the Americanized Santa, and so is 'Sinterklaas'―the legendary figure associated with winter holidays in various European countries. These European countries celebrate Sinterklaas tradition every year on December 5, i.e., St. Nicholas eve, or on the early morning of December 6.
Yet another mythical figure who is closely associated with the legend of Santa Claus, is Father Christmas―a symbolic figure associated with Christmas celebrations in English-speaking countries.
Even though Father Christmas was considered a symbol of the spirit of Christmas celebrations just like Santa, he never got Christmas gifts for children. More recently, however, the two figures have been associated with each other, thus making differentiation very difficult.

Odin from Norse Mythology

While St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Father Christmas have been the most prominent influences for the legend of Santa, there are citations of many other influential figures in the history with whom he has been closely associated. One such figure is Odin (Woden)―a god from the Norse mythology who ruled the heavenly dwelling of the Norse gods, Asgard.
According to a popular folklore, when Odin used to hunt on his flying horse, Sleipnir, the children used to place their boots filled with carrots and straw near the chimney for Sleipnir to eat. Odin used to give these children toys and candies as gifts in return for this favor.
The practice of keeping boots near chimney flourished in Europe and eventually made it to the United States through New Amsterdam, which was then a Dutch colony. Eventually, boots were replaced by stockings and thus came into existence the tradition of hanging stockings at the fireplace.

The Legend of Santa Claus in America

In the 17th century, this legendary figure made its way to the United States and Canada through the Dutch and British colonies.
In the US, the image of Santa Claus received a major makeover, as the American cultural influence made him more than a mere gift-giver. The fist instance of the use of name 'Santa Claus' by the American media can be traced back to 1773. By 1809, the bishop's apparel worn by Sinterklaas had disappeared.
Instead, the Americanized version was depicted as a Dutch sailor with a thick belly and green coat. As time elapsed, the thick belly became even thicker, and Santa became a plump old man wearing a red and white coat.
The modern image of Santa Claus―the one with which we tend to associate him today―is attributed to some of the most popular works of the 19th century American cartoonist, Thomas Nast. Even the story that Santa lives at the North Pole is attributed to one of Nast's works.
Though the history of Santa is quite interesting in itself, it is at times marred by some urban legends―the most popular among which, is the myth that Santa Claus was a Coca Cola Company creation.
Santa was used as a brand ambassador by the company in 1930s (and he does wear a red and white coat), but it was not their own creation.
This may come as a surprise for many, but long before Coca Cola's Santa came into the picture, brand Santa was used by the White Rock Beverages to market their products.
Despite being so old, the legendary Santa Claus continues to inspire writers, artists, and more importantly, children―to do good deeds―even today. And that it itself speaks volumes about his popularity.