Monday, Dec 25, 2023

The many origins of Santa Claus, from Christian saints to Nordic evil spirits

How did the grandfatherly figure of Santa Claus come to be linked with Christmas and with the tradition of gifting? Here, we take a look at the legends, the economics, and the politics around him.

santa claus historyA man dressed as Santa Claus feeds seagulls on the Tapi river in Surat. (PTI)

For millions of people worldwide, gifts form an important part of Christmas celebrations. Presents are bought for children, and there are numerous exchanges between friends and office colleagues. Most often, such gifts are given out in the name of the mysterious but benevolent figure of Santa Claus.

How did this grandfatherly figure come to be linked with Christmas and with the tradition of gifting? Here, we take a look at some legends.

Saint Nicholas, nuuttipukki: the precursors

According to Encylopedia Britannica, the popular image of Santa Claus is based on traditions associated with Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Christian saint. He was seen as a patron saint of children. A BBC report states that Nicholas was believed to be the bishop of the small Roman town of Myra (present-day Turkey) in the 4th Century.

St Nicholas A large icon of St Nicholas painted in 1294 for the Lipno Church, Russia. (Wikipedia)

The saint was well-known among the Dutch, who called him Sinterklaas. When the Dutch came to colonise the region around present-day New York, USA, in the 17th century, they brought their unique traditions — including Sinterklaas.

Finland also lays claims to the mythology of Santa Claus. The BBC report adds that “Before Christianity came to Finland in the Middle Ages, Finns celebrated Yule, a pagan mid-winter festival marked by an elaborate feast.” Paganism refers to the prevailing religious and spiritual beliefs, which existed before the coming about of the major modern religions.

Festive offer

“On St Knut’s Day (13 January), the day many Nordic countries mark the end of the holiday season, nuuttipukki – men dressed in fur jackets, birch bark masks and horns – would go door to door to demand gifts and scrounge for leftover food.”

While these were evil spirits, the 1800s saw the stories of Saint Nicholas make their way here. “His image blended with the pre-existing tradition of the masked nuuttipukki to create Joulupukki. Translating to ‘Yule Goat’, Joulupukki handed out gifts instead of demanding them,” the report adds. This figure was known to wear red robes and deliver gifts.


Interestingly, the UK also had a pre-existing figure called Father Christmas. The University of York notes in an article that quite unlike Santa, he “presided over festive parties, feasts and drinking… Christmas was focused more on entertainment for adults rather than a time for children.” This changed with the Victorian period in the 19th century, which was accompanied by societal changes such as a greater focus on family life. It was this sentiment that could have given rise to a more familiar, kinder figure aimed at children.

Another similar figure in the world of children from Europe is that of Krampus. The half-goat, half-demon monster is seen as an evil counterpart to Santa, who punishes children for being naughty while Santa rewards them with gifts for being nice.

Why did Santa become the giver of gifts?

Paul Ringel, an associate professor of history, wrote in The Atlantic in 2015 that Christmas gift-giving emerged through a mix of different trends – the emergence of a toy industry in the early 1800s, increasing commercialisation, and the increasing population of New York.


There seemed to be a concern among the elite sections of society over the celebrations that the working class would engage in, and the holidays they would demand from their bosses. “In a newly congested urban environment, though, aristocrats worried that such celebrations might become vehicles for protest when employers refused to give workers time off during the holidays or when a long winter of unemployment loomed for seasonal laborers,” he writes.

Gift-giving was, therefore, “the product of overlapping interests between elites who wanted to move raucous celebrations out of the streets and into homes, and families who simultaneously wanted to keep their children safe at home and expose them, in limited amounts, to commercial entertainment”.

The History Channel further notes that in 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on an 1823 poem from Clement Clarke Moore, called ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’. This poem greatly influenced how we see Santa today.

Santa Claus Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. (Wikimedia Commons)

The poem featured lines with imagery such as a “miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer”, “And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow”, and “A bundle of toys he had flung on his back”. Nast’s cartoon put to paper this description.

Not everyone likes Santa

While kids see Santa as a bringer of gifts, some adults are more suspicious of his presence. In 2018, according to a South China Morning Post report, a northern Chinese town saw its officials order the removal of festive decorations – an attempt to prevent “spreading religion” in a country where the state is officially atheist.


“The statement by Langfang officials said that anyone caught selling Christmas trees, wreaths, stockings or Santa Claus figures in the city would be punished,” the report adds.

In the Soviet Union in 1922, a similar figure was briefly banned under the new communist regime. A Time Magazine article notes how Ded Moroz, a Russian Santa-like wizard, was banished because the commercialisation associated with gifting was seen to be against the prevailing ideology of the day. Of late, he has been revived to present what is seen as a Russian alternative to the American Santa Claus.


In India too, the popularity of Santa has come under challenge. A petition to the National Green Tribunal, in 2016, demanded that among other things, the Delhi government must ban the making of Santa Claus dresses to “save wool and cotton from being wasted,” as per a PTI report. However, the bench junked the petition, saying “communal colour” was being given to the matter of conservation.

In 2022, the VHP had asked schools not to ask students to dress up as Santa Claus or bring Christmas trees without their parents’ permission, claiming that this was “an attack on Hindu culture” and “a conspiracy to influence Hindu children with Christianity”. A similar directive has been issued by Madhya Pradesh’s Shajapur district education officer, to schools this year.

First published on: 24-12-2023 at 15:47 IST
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