This is a piece I originally wrote for children. For them, I left out some of the stuff in paragraphs 5, 7, and 12, below. LOL. Sharing this again ’cause. . . . it’s almost Christmas. My little tribute to the Pole-ish peoples.
1 Every year, around Christmas, some newspaper runs a story saying that Santa Claus was invented by the Coca Cola Company. But there’s a problem with those stories. They aren’t true. Back in the 1931, the soft drink company did hire an artist named Haddon Sundblom to create Christmas ads. Those ads pictured a plump, jolly Santa with rosy cheeks, a red suit, and a white beard. The Santa ads were a big hit. Coca Cola created new Santa ads every year until the 1960s. A myth was born that Santa was created by Coca Cola.
2 However, long before the Coca Cola ads, Santa Claus had already appeared in other illustrations wearing a red suit and a beard. For example, Norman Rockwell painted a red-suited, white-bearded Santa for a 1921 magazine cover. That cover appeared ten years earlier than did the first of the Coca Cola Santas. So, Coca Cola didn’t invent Santa. It didn’t even create the image of him that most of us are familiar with. So, if Coke didn’t invent Santa, who did? The answer turns out to be odd and interesting.
3 About 1,800 years ago, people in Southern Europe were already giving gifts at Christmas. They were imitating the gift-giving Magi in the Bible (often referred to as the “three wise men,” though the number is not mentioned in the sole Biblical account, in Matthew. If you haven’t experienced Frankincense essence, btw, treat yourself; it’s wonderful). Some early Church leaders didn’t like this materialistic gift-giving frenzy. They thought that the gift-giving had gotten completely out of control. Lord knows what they would think if they lived today!
4 At the same time, in Northern Europe, there was a myth about the Norse God Odin. People said that every year, in the dead of winter, Odin would ride through the sky on his horse. He would bring gifts and punish the wicked. Odin wore a fur coat and had a big beard. In the same part of Europe, people told stories about little bearded elves, or gnomes, called tomtar. They wore green coats, played tricks on people, and brought presents.
5 About 1,700 years ago, there lived in Turkey a man named Nicholas. He became an important leader, a bishop in the Catholic Church. After Nicholas’s death, the Church made him a saint. This was a very high honor. They also created a holy day, on December 6, to celebrate him. It was called Saint Nicholas’s Day. Many stories were told about Saint Nicholas. Some told about how he protected children. People started telling stories about how Saint Nicholas would come on December 6 to bring presents to nice children and switches or coal to naughty children. In some of these stories, bad boys and girls would be carried away by a monster called the Krampus. (Depictions of the Dutch version of Krampus, Zwarte Piet, aka “Black Pete” or “Black Peter,” have been the subject, recently, of anti-racism demonstrations in the Netherlands). Later on, Saint Nicholas’s Day was moved to December 25, the same day as Christmas.
6 People continued to tell stories about Saint Nicholas bringing presents on Christmas, and in different countries, his name was slightly different. In England he was called Father Christmas. In France he was Pere Noel. In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas was pronounced Sinterklaas. The old stories about Odin and the tomtar got combined with stories about Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas was imagined as a little elf man who would ride through the air and bring presents. He was often pictured as wearing a fur-lined coat and having a beard. So, Sinterklaas was a little like Saint Nicholas. He was a little like Odin. And he was a little like the elves.
7 When people from Northern Europe came to North America, they brought their ideas about Sinterklaas with them. By 1773, some people had already changed the name to Santa Claus. In 1809, a writer named Washington Irving wrote a book in which he told about a jolly Saint Nicholas. In Irving’s book, Nicholas had a big belly and wore a green coat. In 1821, a poem called “Old Santeclaus” was published in America. The poem pictured him riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Where did the idea of the reindeer come from? Well, in Lapland, reindeer are used to pull sleds called pulks. Lapland is in the far northern part of Europe. The writer was telling a Northern European story and added this detail to it. The elderly, white-bearded Lapp shamans used to harness their reindeer and drive out over the snow to collect Amanita muscaria mushrooms (those red ones with the white dots). They would wear red coats in imitation of their sacred shroom. They would gather the shrooms into bags flung about their shoulders. They couldn’t eat the shrooms directly because they were highly toxic. So, they fed them to the reindeer. Then, they drank the reindeer piss (yes, you heard that right) and tripped and saw visions. Illustrations of the Lapp shamans and their Amanita mushrooms were commonly reproduced on 19th century winter postcards, and all the elements of later Santa iconography are there–the red coats, the white beard, the snow, the sack over the shoulder, the reindeer, and the pipe.
8 Modern ideas about Santa Claus were probably most influenced by a poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” This poem, also known as “The Night before Christmas,” was published in 1823. The poem tells about Santa coming to a house on Christmas Eve. In the poem, a man is awakened by a noise. He runs to the window and looks out. There he sees a little sleigh pulled by “eight tiny reindeer.” The poem even gives names to the reindeer. They are called Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Conner, and Blitzen. The sleigh lands on the roof. Then its “little” driver comes down the chimney. He is jolly and plump and dressed in fur. He has a pack full of toys. And he is said to be an “elf.” When he laughs, his tummy shakes “like a bowl full of jelly.” He fills the children’s stockings and disappears up the chimney again. In drawings made by the illustrator Thomas Nash in the late 1800s, Santa grew taller. He was no longer a little elf but the size of a full-grown man. Nash also gave Santa’s address as the North Pole. Another part of the Santa legend was born.
9 Many streams can run together to make one river. In the same way, many ideas from two thousand years of history ran together to create the story of Santa Claus.
10 In 1897, a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to a newspaper in New York. She said, “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” A newspaper editor named Frank Church wrote this famous reply:
11 “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. . . . How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance. . . . He lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia . . . he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
12 In the 1960s, the songwriter Arlo Guthrie wrote his own tribute to Santa for the hippie generation:
Let’s get Santa Claus cause. . .
Santa Claus wears a red suit
Must be a Communist.
Wears a beard and long hair.
Must be a pacifist.
What’s in the pipe that he’s smoking?
Why do police guys beat on peace guys?
Copyright 2016. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.