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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Who is Santa?

The big guy is more complicated – and more interesting – than you might think


By JOAQUIN WATERS — jwat@ucdavis.edu


It’s a new year! And you know what that means: it’s officially time to pack up all the Christmas decorations and stop being festive for the next 11 months. Even though winter has technically just begun, the holiday that the season is most associated with has come and gone, so it’s time to pack up all the trimmings. Everything must go: the wreaths, the nutcrackers and especially the eighty-something Santa Claus figurines that your grandmother has covered every square inch of her house with, turning the living space into an anxiety-inducing porcelain labyrinth from which there is no escape. So, in honor of the end of the season (and because I committed to write this piece weeks before Christmas), I figured now is as good a time as any to explore the ubiquitous question: who is Santa Claus? 

Now, I know what you’re thinking: what a dumb question! Everyone knows who Santa Claus is. He’s a functionally immortal jolly old man in a red suit who lives in an industrial factory located at the northernmost point of the planet, and who travels around the globe once every year in a sled pulled by reindeer at what must surely be supersonic speeds, delivering moral judgment upon the children of earth and rewarding the worthy with LEGO sets and T-shirts that are two sizes too big. But these are merely the basics. Have you ever actually thought to ask the question of where the big guy comes from? What is his origin story? Is he an alien exiled from Planet Christmas? Was he bitten by a radioactive reindeer? Well my friends, the answer is actually far more complicated – and interesting – than you might think.

The modern version of Santa Claus originates from the famous children’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” supposedly written in 1823 by the American writer Clement Clarke Moore. It was this poem that popularized the image of a jolly, bearded old man delivering presents on Christmas Eve through the aid of a sled pulled by eight reindeer. From practically the instant the poem hit shelves, its version of Santa Claus became the symbol of Christmas in the United States. The American version of Santa Claus was further solidified (but not created, as is commonly thought) by a series of Coca-Cola ads that ran in the 1920s which featured Santa in a bright red coat (possibly to draw a visual connection to the bright red color of Coca-Cola cans). So there you have it; the modern origin of Santa. But still the question arises: where did these ideas come from?

The most commonly accepted origin posits that the “secret identity” of Mr. Claus is none other than the legendary figure of Saint Nicholas. Very little is known about the historical Saint Nick. Traditional accounts claim that he was born in the third century in the Greek port city of Myra, to wealthy parents who raised him as a devout Christian. In later years, he came to be worshiped in Greece as the patron saint of sailors – sort of a Christian substitute for the pagan god Poseidon – but as his popularity grew, his role was soon eclipsed. Among many other things, Saint Nicholas came to be known as the patron saint of children. As is wont to happen to legendary figures, the singular image of Saint Nick eventually fragmented into several variations all across Europe. The Dutch variation, Sinterklaas, who is garbed in a long red robe and rides a white horse, is usually cited as the most direct source of inspiration for the American vision of Santa Claus. 

But while Saint Nicholas may have been a source for the jolly old man we know and love, he was certainly not the only one. In fact, Santa’s roots run far deeper than many would have you believe. Before Christmas, the most common winter holiday in Europe was Yule, a ritualistic celebration which has its roots in Germanic and Norse Mythology. Yule was meant to honor the coming of the god Odin as he rode across the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir chasing animals – an event known as the Wild Hunt. Odin, father of Thor and king of the Aesir, was frequently depicted in art as a bearded old man who wandered the Earth, often entering the houses of mortals through the chimney to pass moral judgments on his subjects. It is also from Norse Mythology that the concept of elves and dwarves as master craftsmen originates. As Christianity spread, Christmas was transposed onto Yule and the association with Odin and the Wild Hunt dissipated. But the holiday never quite lost its pagan elements. The image of the bearded man surrounded by elves and animals persisted, morphing into the folkloric figure of Father Christmas (immortalized by Charles Dickens as the Ghost of Christmas Present) before finally being melded onto Saint Nicholas to become Santa Claus. 

So there you have it. Santa Claus has alternately been an ancient Norse god, a Christian saint of sailors and children, a soda mascot and many other things that I didn’t have time to get into. Santa Claus is the sum total of all of these things: pagan rituals, Christian globalization, American consumerism. What’s the moral of this story? I suppose that every culture hero and iconic character we take for granted today has its roots in ten thousand other figures that have all evolved or been changed to suit modern agendas. Oh, and they should totally make a movie where Santa Claus is literally Odin. That would be super sick.


Written by: Joaquin Waters — jwat@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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