The popular-culture perception of Santa Claus typically involves images of elves, reindeer and the North Pole. However, the white-bearded figure associated with Christianity’s major holiday has pagan roots.
For those unfamiliar with the origins of Santa Claus, here are five influences associated with the folk figure:
Santa Claus is primarily linked to St. Nicholas, the Greek bishop of Myra, a Roman town in Turkey. St. Nicholas lived during the third and fourth centuries. He defended Christianity while followers were being persecuted. He was imprisoned for many years until Constantine came to power and made Christianity the dominant religion in the Roman empire.
After his death, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of many groups, including sailors and entire nations, as National Geographic noted. However, two tales of his life led him to become the patron saint of children and a magical gift giver. One involves Bishop Nicholas giving three bags of gold to a father to save his daughters from prostitution. The other involves three boys who were murdered, dismembered and pickled by their killer, an innkeeper: Nicholas prayed to God and resurrected the three boys, according to the story recounted by Beliefnet.
Between 1200 and 1500, gift-giving celebrations took place on St. Nicholas’ Day, Dec. 6. After the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic saint lost prominence, but the tradition continued. This time, the gift giving was attributed to baby Jesus. Since the infant could carry only so many presents, he was given a helper who encouraged good behavior from children -- and threatened them with kidnappings or whippings otherwise.
These sidekicks were based on St. Nicholas and are known by Germanic names, including Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas) and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas).
St. Nicholas is commonly linked to Odin, the ruler of Asgard, one of the major gods in Germanic mythology who was depicted as a white-bearded man with magical powers. However, Odin’s ties to Santa Claus may be more pronounced. The winter solstice, also known as Yule, was a time when Odin led a hunting party, known as the Wild Hunt, in the sky with an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. The 13th century Poetic Edda said the mythical horse could leap great distances -- a trait reindeer possess. Children would leave their boots by the chimney filled with carrots and hay to feed Sleipnir. Legend has it that whenever Odin flew by he would leave gifts by their boots, as About.com noted.
After Christianity took hold, this practice was later adopted in relation to St. Nicholas. Children would leave their shoes on the windowsill or bedroom door on the evening of Dec. 5 for the saint to reward them with nuts, fruits and sweets, as CatholicCulture.org pointed out.
Frau Holda is the Germanic goddess of winter. In German folk legends, she is depicted as a beautiful blonde who is the protector of children’s souls. Like Odin, she would fly through the night and give gifts to children, as Beliefnet noted. In some depictions, Holda is dressed in red and uses chimneys to deliver gifts. Some Germanic traditions involve leaving food and milk for Holda Dec. 24, known as Mother Night.
Le Befana is an Italian legend dating to the 13th century. The old soot-covered woman is believed to fly on a broomstick and enter children’s homes through chimneys to offer candy and presents. For children who have misbehaved, Befana leaves a lump of coal.
Her significance stems from a Christian story that sees her approached by the Three Wise Men while on their way to see baby Jesus, as Monteverdi Tuscany recounted. They asked her to lead them to the site, but she refused. Shortly afterward, she had a change of heart and went after the three men with a bag full of gifts to give to the infant. While she followed the star of the Magi, she never found the manger, according to the legend. To this day she continues to travel the world and search each house for Christ.
Santa Claus or Babbo Natale is still associated with gift giving Dec. 24. Befana comes on the Day of the Epiphany, Jan. 6. During the feast day, children are given gifts, while traditional Italian foods are served to mark the end of the holiday season.
Clement Clarke Moore’s Poem
Santa Claus came to the New World in the 1821 thanks to the first lithographed book in the U.S., “The Children’s Friend,” as noted by the St. Nicholas Center. He was described as a bearded man from the north whose sleigh was powered by flying reindeer. Santa Claus rewarded well-behaved children and punished naughty ones.
However, it was Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (now known as “The Night Before Christmas”) that cemented Santa Claus’ role in America’s Christmas tradition.
The poem portrayed St. Nicholas as a man with a “little round belly” who dressed in fur with “a bundle of toys” flung around his back. Covered in soot from the chimneys he entered, he would fill children’s stockings with toys and wish a “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”