Santa Claus Is Coming to Town…
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Santa (But Were Afraid to Ask)
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‘Tis the season to be jolly, and what better way to kick off the festivities than by delving into the mystery behind the man with the magical belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly? So buckle up, because we’re about to dive deep into the holly-jolly world of Santa Claus—the guy who somehow manages to visit every house in the world in one night.
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10 Fun Facts About Santa Claus
- He’s based on a Greek bishop named St. Nicholas, who lived in what is now Turkey in the third century A.D.
- He delivers gifts to children at a rate of about 22 million children per hour.
- You can “track” his Christmas Eve journey using Google’s Santa Tracker or NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).
- He was awarded a pilot’s license by the Assistant Secretary of Commerce in 1927.
- There is a Santa University in Colorado where people study how to be Santa.
- A U.S. town is named after him: Santa Claus, Indiana.
- The average age that children in the U.S. stop believing in him is about 8–81/2.
- In a popular song in Australia, his sleigh is pulled by six big kangaroos—”boomers” (you can listen to the song here).
- He gets the most letters from France.
- In some countries children leave Santa Claus alcohol such as sherry and beer.
The History of Santa Claus
The figure of Santa Claus has a rich and diverse history that has evolved over centuries, blending various cultural influences. The modern portrayal of Santa Claus is often traced back to the legendary figure of Saint Nicholas, a Christian bishop who lived in the 4th century in Myra, which is present-day Turkey. Saint Nicholas was known for his piety, acts of kindness, generosity, and gift-giving.
So how did a bishop in Turkey morph into a jolly old man with a penchant for red velvet suits and a long, white bear? It is widely believed that the Dutch settlers brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas, or “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, to America, where his name was translated to Santa Claus. However, there were numerous changes from Santa’s arrival in the New World in the 1600s to Santa as we know him today.
Author Washington Irving was a major force in popularizing Santa Claus in America. In 1809, he wrote a book, The History of New York, where he reinvented Saint Nicholas from a tall, somber saint to a short, stout, merry, pipe-smoking Dutchman, dressed in traditional colonial attire.
The transformation of Santa Claus gained momentum in the 19th century in the United States. Clement Thomas Moore’s poem “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” (commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”), published in 1823, further elaborated on the character of Santa Claus—his poem describes Santa driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer, landing on rooftops and carrying his sack down the chimney.
The popularization of this imagery was further enhanced by advertising. For example, in Coca-Cola Company’s advertising campaigns in the 1930s, the company’s artist, Haddon Sundblom, created illustrations of Santa Claus enjoying Coca-Cola, helping to shape the modern and universally recognized image of Santa.
Nice Guy or Disciplinarian?
If Santa started out as a humble, self-sacrificng, bishop, how did he wind up being the keeper of the naughty list, doling out punishments to children who aren’t up to snuff?
While we can’t be sure, there are a number of cultural influences that may be responsible.
In the shadowy corners of Alpine folklore, there lurks a character who embodies the darker, more mischievous side of Christmas cheer. Meet Krampus, jolly old St. Nick’s evil sidekick.
The tale of Krampus dates back centuries, rooted in the Alpine regions of Europe, particularly in countries like Austria, Germany, and Hungary. He is often depicted as a horned, anthropomorphic creature with hooves, a long, pointed tongue, and sharp fangs. He is typically covered in fur and carries chains, bells, and a bundle of birch branches or a whip, which are used to swat naughty children. These days, Krampus has gone from being a feared creature to a cultural icon. In Alpine villages, folks dress up as Krampus for parades that are a delightful mix of spookiness and holiday cheer.
La Befana is a legendary figure in Italian folklore, often referred to as the Italian Christmas Witch. The character of La Befana is associated with the celebration of Epiphany, which takes place on January 6th. Unlike the traditional image of Santa Claus, La Befana is depicted as an old woman with a hunchback, dressed in tattered clothing, and flying on a broomstick.
The folklore surrounding La Befana varies across different regions of Italy, but the most common story goes like this:
On their way to visit the baby Jesus, the Three Wise Men stopped to invite La Befana to join them. But she turned them down, claiming she had too much housework! Later, she had a change of heart and decided to find the baby Jesus, but it was too late. Now, every year, she goes house to house, leaving gifts for good kiddos and a bit of coal or dark candy for the troublemakers.
Père Noël and Le Père Fouettard
As with the Krampus tradition, in France Santa Claus has an evil counterpart, Le Père Fouettard.
Père Noël, the French counterpart to the universally recognized Santa Claus, emerges as the epitome of gift-giving elegance, traveling the world to bestow gifts on children who have been good. Conversely, Le Père Fouettard, translating to “Father Whipper” in English, deals with the naughty children. Originally depicted as a sinister butcher with a penchant for kidnapping children, Le Père Fouettard underwent a transformation when Père Noël intervened, repurposing his character as a disciplinarian rather than a malevolent figure. In this reimagined role, Le Père Fouettard administers symbolic whippings or dispenses lumps of coal to children found lacking in virtuous conduct.
Odin, the Norse God
It might seem odd—even blasphemous!—to associate a god with Santa Claus. But there are a number of similarities between Odin and St. Nicholas.
One notable parallel lies in the imagery associated with Odin during the Norse celebration of Yule. Odin, often referred to as the All-Father, was believed to have embarked on a mythical journey during the winter solstice, riding his eight-legged horse. This imagery of a wise, bearded figure on a magical journey shares similarities with the modern image of Santa Claus flying on his reindeer-led sleigh.
Additionally, Odin was associated with the act of gift-giving during the Yule season. The Norse tradition involved Odin delivering gifts to those who had been virtuous and punishments to those who had behaved poorly. The adoption of certain aspects of Odin’s mythology into the evolving folklore of Christmas likely occurred as a result of cultural exchanges and the assimilation of various traditions over time.
Other Santas Around the Globe
As the holiday season swings into gear, Santa’s getting ready for the ultimate worldwide sleigh ride. But guess what? Santa isn’t just a one-size-fits-all kinda guy. He’s got a passport, a bag full of cultural flair, and a whole bunch of alter egos, depending on where you are in the world.
We’ve already discussed traditions in which Santas has an evil twist. Here are some other unusual versions of the Yuletide’s Man of the Hour.
Tomte isn’t your typical Santa Claus—he’s more like the cozy guardian of Christmas cheer. Picture a gnome-like figure with a long white beard, often dressed in traditional Swedish attire, and you’ve got the essence of Tomte. This mischievous but benevolent character is deeply rooted in Swedish folklore, and his presence is felt in homes across the country during the holiday season.
Joulupukki or Yule goat
Meet Joulupukki, the Finnish embodiment of Santa Claus. Unlike his globally recognized red-suited counterpart, Joulupukki sports a robe, often adorned in shades of blue or green. The name itself translates to “Yule Goat,” hinting at the magical partnership that defines the Finnish Christmas spirit.
In times past, Joulupukki wasn’t just a gift-giver; he had a mischievous edge. Children had to earn their presents by singing songs or reciting poems—a festive twist that adds an extra layer of charm to the Finnish holiday tradition. Enter the Yule Goat, a magical creature with roots in ancient pagan celebrations. In Nordic folklore, the Yule Goat was believed to roam from house to house, ensuring the holiday spirit was alive and well. Its origins trace back to times when people would dress as goat-like figures during winter festivities, bridging the gap between old and new traditions.
Tió de Nadal
As one of the most bizarre “Santas” on our holiday lineup, Tió de Nadal emerges as a wooden log sporting a cheerful smiley face that, believe it or not, engages in the unique act of “present defecation.”
Hailing from the Catalonian region of Spain, this endearing log finds its place beneath the Christmas tree, where children lovingly “feed” it a diet of nuts and dried fruit in the days leading up to Christmas. All the while, they ensure Tió de Nadal stays cozy under a snug blanket, treating it like an honorary member of the festive household.
When Christmas Eve arrives, children playfully wield sticks, giving poor Tió a friendly beating, all while chanting a spirited song that doesn’t shy away from mentioning bodily functions. The morning after, the little ones are in for a joyful surprise—Tió de Nadal has left behind a pile of gifts and sweets.
Congratulations, you are now most likely an very knowledgeable on Santa Claus! You’re sure to be a big hit at the next Christmas office party, as you regale your coworkers with all that you’ve learned about the big guy. You also probably have a greater cultural awareness about the hero of the Christmas season. And that’s a gift even Santa would approve of.
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