In the Western world, Christmas is a time to celebrate, either to mark the birth of Christ or enjoy more pagan revelries. Although Christmas is celebrated at different times across Europe (in many countries, the main event takes place on 6 December – St Nicholas’ Day), at the heart of the holidays is a figure who rewards good children with presents, a man known in English-speaking countries as Father Christmas, Santa Claus or St Nicholas. It would be easy to think that they are all the same person but they all have very different histories and some of them are not very festive at all. Across Northern Europe, there are traditions that celebrate monsters and ogres and many of Santa’s predecessors were definitely more naughty than nice.
Prior to Christianisation, Germanic people celebrated a midwinter event called Yule and would dress in furs and a beard and travel from home to home, presenting themselves as Old Man Winter who was better known as Odin, a Norse god with magical powers who flew through the air on a grey eight-legged horse called Sleipnir. Some accounts tell of him also wearing a red cloak. A variation of this was Wodan who led the Wild Hunt and flew through the winter sky on a white horse also called Sleipnir, delivering gifts. Wodan was always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn who would listen at people’s chimneys to tell him about their good and bad behaviour.
The inspiration for Santa Claus may not even have been a man: the Norse goddess Freya apparently spent the twelve days following the Solstice giving gifts to the good and misery to the corrupt. She also travelled in a chariot drawn by stags. In England in early medieval and Tudor times, the Lord of Misrule – known in Scotland as the Abbot of Unreason and in France as the Prince des Sots – was a peasant or sub-deacon appointed to be in charge of Christmas revelries, which often included drunkenness and wild partying, in the tradition of the pagan festival of Saturnalia.
Then there is the widely held belief that the Santa Claus figure derives from a fourth-century bishop. St Nicholas lived in Myra, a Greek town which today is part of Turkey, and was a protector of children and helper of those in need.
St Nicholas may have gained his reputation as a gift giver thanks to the tale of three young sisters whose penniless father could not afford to pay the dowries necessary for each of them to get married. They were destined to a life of spinsterhood (and likely prostitution as this was one of the only ways for a husbandless woman to support herself) so the father prayed for help. St Nicholas, learning of this plight, one night visited the house where the three women lived and placed a bag of gold coins next to an open window. He also did this the following night but on the third night the windows were shut so he climbed down the chimney and filled the stockings drying by the fireside with gold coins. Another miraculous turn of events is a story from the Middle Ages about how St Nicholas brought back to life three young boys who during a famine in the town of Myra were butchered by a local innkeeper and pickled in brine.
Not surprisingly, St Nicholas is now widely regarded as the patron saint of children (as well as prostitutes, sailors, merchants and a host of other groups) but the story goes that he was actually rather aggressive and once famously knocked out another bishop during an argument. This violence continued in the fourteenth century when, on 6 December, teachers would dress as St Nicholas and use a birch rod to beat the children who hadn’t succeeded academically that year, whilst rewarding those who had with sweets or pocket money. St Nicholas would also turn up at houses and scoop naughty children (or those who couldn’t answer his questions about the Bible) into his sack to take them away to Hell. In Bad Santas and other creepy Christmas characters, Paul Hawkins says that one ‘really did need to be good for goodness’ sake’. Children would do anything to keep St Nicholas sweet, and on the eve of his feast day would put out hay and carrots for his horse in order to receive a present the next morning.
In the Netherlands, the Sinterklaas (the Dutch name St Nicholas) of the Middle Ages was also a sinister figure and might scoop naughty children up into his sack and take them to Hell. He carried a birch rod and would also quiz children about the Bible, beating them if they answered any questions incorrectly. He had a sidekick in the shape of Zwarte Piet or Black Peter, originally a devil-like character, said to originate from Spain, who would also hit children. He was introduced to take on the terrifying characteristics originally associated with Sinterklaas, as teachers and priests were worried about the holy man’s reputation. Zwarte Piet was depicted as a black man and may have been based on a Moorish slave. He would be played by a local person who would portray him by blacking their hands and faces with soot. In France, children were terrified of his equivalent, Père Fouettard, the ‘whipping father’ who assisted St Nicholas on his travels.
Then there were the monsters and there are far too many to mention them all. Perchita was a horrible woman, a witch who at night cut open children’s stomachs, took out the intestines and filled them with stones and straw before sealing them up again. Obviously the children were found dead in their beds the next morning but their parents would have no idea why. In Hungary, a similar witch-type character called Lussinath or Lucy (derived from Lussi who was head of the Norwegian Wild Hunt) would travel on a broomstick accompanied by evil spirits and trolls and would destroy property and crops and sometimes kill badly behaved children.
The German Belsnickel (which literally means to wallop somebody) was a mean-spirited gift-bringer who beat naughty children. The Krampus was a mutated goat that beat children with a birch stick and according to some folk tales also ate them for Christmas dinner. The Krampus usually accompanied Sinterklaas but sometimes visited houses alone. In Greece, goblins called the Kallikantzen would sneak down the chimney and steal newborn children and therefore it was considered bad luck to give birth over the festive period.
In Lapland, considered by many as the real home of Santa Claus, there was a half troll, half devil creature called Staalo who, accompanied by a fierce hunting dog, would turn up at houses with a large knife and kill children and eat their flesh. A variation of this character, Joulustaato rode a sledge pulled by forest creatures and instead of water would drink the blood and brains of children. He had very sensitive hearing and children were warned to be quiet on Christmas Eve in order to stay alive.
Christmas was a scary time and these stories may have been invented to warn people against the real dangers lurking in the dark and cold midwinter night. Now that the world (in some ways) is a safer place, many of these creatures have gradually become kinder and, as Hawkins explains, have gone ‘from demon to bringer of gifts’.
Christmas became more popular over the centuries, although in Britain the Church grew more disapproving of pagan festivities, especially its associations with the supernatural and witchcraft. It was decided that St Nicholas would now be associated with the birth of Christ and would no longer deliver gifts on 6 December but instead on 25 December to coincide with Christmas Day. During the reign of Henry VIII, Father Christmas was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry, although he, unlike St Nicholas, was not associated with either children or the bringing of gifts.
A century later, Christmas was banned by the Puritans for sixteen years and the festivities didn’t really recover for the next 150 years until the Victorian era. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were big fans of the yuletide season and were responsible for introducing the Christmas tree to Britain. Christmas found a new meaning and family and charity was at its core. The Victorian middle classes adopted the Christmas Man, who was already very popular in Germany, a bearded figure who delivered presents to well-behaved children and carried a birch rod to hit naughtier ones. In Britain he became Father Christmas but over the pond he developed into a man called Santa Claus.
Dutch settlers in America brought with them the tradition of Sinterklaas and it was in New York, originally called New Amsterdam, that the modern-day Santa Claus was born. In 1809, Washington Irving, author of the creepy The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published A History of New York, a satirical book that described the Dutch settlers’ Christmas traditions including a jolly St Nicholas who delivered presents and flew over houses in a cart pulled by horses. Then in 1822, a New York newspaper published an anonymous poem entitled A Visit from St. Nicholas written by Clement Moore. The poem, better known as The Night Before Christmas, introduced the eight flying reindeer, and presented a kindly St Nicholas figure.
And yet Santa still had no set image until 1962 when Thomas Nast drew a Civil War soldier with a beard and round belly for the cover of Harper’s Weekly. Over the next thirty years, this figure developed into a more festive Santa Claus and his cloak turned from tan or green to the red he’s known for today. It’s a myth that Coca-Cola invented Santa’s red coat, something the company itself admits, although thanks to Haddon Sundblom’s illustrations, these images of a warm and friendly old man are arguably the most recognisable worldwide.
These days Father Christmas and Santa Claus are pretty much the same character depending on which side of the Atlantic you live and, like their French cousin Père Noël, they deliver gifts the night before 25 December. Some European countries still refer to him as St Nicholas primarily because there he delivers gifts on the eve of St Nicholas Day which falls on 6 December. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas (often called De Goede Sint – The Good Saint) is aided by Zwarte Piet and arrives each year by steam boat from Spain in mid-November. For three weeks they travel around the country to find out if children have been well-behaved, visiting them in schools, hospitals, department stores, and even at home. Sinterklaas still provides parents with a stick to beat their children should they misbehave.
This rather peculiar tradition is perhaps the one that has kept some of its murkier origins. The practice of dressing up as a caricature of a person of African origin is today considered to be very tasteless and it is increasingly reviled by critics as a racist and offensive part of the celebration.
Whatever you call him, our ‘Christmas man’ has evolved into a kind and jolly character – and some would say, a symbol of commercialism. And whilst we can’t be entirely certain of his true origins, Santa remains a mystery (how exactly does he know who’s been good and who’s been bad?) so it may be advisable not get to get on his bad side. The ‘little St Nick’ might not be so nice after all.
Yule: A celebration of light and carols, Dorothy Morrison (Llywellyn Worldwide, 2000)
The Christmas Pocket Bible, Guy and Steve Hobbs (Crimson Publishing, 2009)
The Victorian Christmas, Anna Selby (Remember When Publications, 2008)
Bad Santas and other creepy Christmas characters, Paul Hawkins (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
The Truth About Christmas, Philip Ardagh (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2012)