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The true history of Santa Claus

So this is Christmas: or Yule: or Noel: or the Nativity, however you prefer to label it. And we spring into Christmas mode as soon as Xmas FM appears on the dial, but where did these traditions orginate? The ceaseless playing of Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” in shopping centres can be traced back to the recording of the infernal track in 1973. The tree, and Father Christmas in particular, have much longer, and more interesting, narratives.

The Christmas tree – der Tannenbaum – has been used as a  focal point for Western Christmases for the past two centuries. It’s the symbol of Christmas giving at a thousand fetes, Yuletide parties and department stores. Yet its adoption was not without furious debate. So if you want to ponder on the inherent human ability for argument and taking offence, read this extract of growls about the “pagan practice” of chopping down a tree and bringing it into your house.

But the more interesting evolution is that of the Bearded One himself.

Love him or shudder, the jolly plump man with the red suit and white beard is ubiquitous in Western society at this time of year. Mostly identified as the cultural progeny of a Christian saint, Santa also owes some characteristics to Valhalla. In the Nordic tradition, the god Odin was depicted as the key man for the winter solstice, or Yule. These legends had the white-bearded Odin leading a seasonal hunting party through the skies, including eight-legged horses.

Santa Claus is a Latinized and truncated version of St Nicholas (Sinterklaas in The Netherlands). The original St Nick is believed to have been born at a place called Patara in what is now Turkey around 280 AD. Nicholas came from a wealthy family but became a monk, later a bishop, and was renowned for his generosity to the poor, becoming Europe’s favourite saint by the Middle Ages.

One legend relates how Nicholas visited a poor man with three daughters. The daughters were disconsolate because they were unmarried – on the shelf, and with no dowries from daddy, likely to remain that way. After night fell, the story goes, Nicholas tiptoted back to the house and left three bags of gold, one for each girl. That is the alleged basis for the custom of the Christmas stocking, or gifts appearing magically under the tree on Christmas Eve.

St Nicholas’s feast day is on December 6, which is the day Christmas is celebrated in some European countries, including the Netherlands. The Dutch do most of their partying on the eve of the big day, as do the Germans, Hungarians and other nationalities who mark Christmas as the birth of Christ, but have their feasts and gift-giving on Christmas Eve.

The Dutch also tell their kids that Santa lives in Madrid the rest of the year (good call). And in Spain he is known as Papa Noel, similar to Pere Noel in France.

First reports of the avatar of Santa could be traced to the 18th century, and Dutch settlers in America. records newspapers mentioning December gatherings of Dutch migrants to mark the feast of St Nick, in the 1770s. Author Washington Irving called Santa the “patron saint of New York” in his 1809 history of the city.

Some years later, clergyman and scholar Clement Clarke Moore wrote a long poem for his children called “An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas” , which we know today as “The Night Before Christmas”. This included the vision of Santa flying from house to house in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. At that time Santa was more of an elf than a jolly Grandad, and the sleigh and reindeer were miniature versions.

From this poem a cartoonists, Thomas Nast, some decades later drew his idea of Santa, in a red suit trimmed with white fur, looking jolly.

Gerry Bowler’s 2005 biography of Santa reveals more little-known aspects of the Christmas king’s provenance. Bowler records involvement with numerous social and political issues, including enlistment on the Union side in the American Civil War! Santa has, less creditably, appeared as a shill for insurance companies and firearms manufacturers.

But the common idea that he was a creation of the Coca-Cola Company is put to rest by Bowler – although he does refer to the red man as “a fundamental part of the industrialized economy”. Coke has a whole section devoted to its association with Santa on its website, and cites artist Fred Mizen painting Santa Claus drinking a bottle of the famous soft drink in a department store for a December 1930 advertsing campaign. However, the more famous “Coke Santa” is the work of illustrator Haddon Sundblom, who churned out the image for three decades.

One constituency disgusted with the hijacking of a venerable saint into a travelling salesman campaigns for the truth of St Nick, and respecting his memory. Their aim is “rescuing St Nicholas from Santa Claus”, and they are based in Holland … Holland, Michigan, that is.

In Asian countries – allegedly – there have been sightings of Santa being crucified, displaying some cultural confusion. To return to Gerry Bowler, he notes that two deities preside over Christmas, the infant Jesus Christ and the mature Santa Claus, so perhaps we can forgive the error.

And there is a lovely series of depictions of Santa/St. Nicholas through the ages here, from