You can’t think of Christmas without thinking about the big man in red. His name is now known throughout the globe as Santa Claus, and behind this fictitious gift-giving saint lies a very complex and intriguing history. I mean, come on, the tale of a fat man who lives to fly around the globe giving gifts to every good child in every nation on earth with the assistance of magical reindeer on the 24th of December has to have a pretty interesting background story. This global icon for Christmas cheer is derived from a multitude of sources that even have their own origin stories themselves. We’re going to go as far back as we can to answer the question of what led to the legend of the good-doing sleigh-riding cookie-eating Santa Claus.
We start in northern Europe, where the winters are long, cold, dark, and depressing, the coldest, darkest, and most depressing day in winter being on the winter solstice. During the solstice (which lies on either the 21st or the 22nd of December for the northern hemisphere), northern Europe receives only a few weak hours of sunlight, if any at all for some towns. So, to lighten the mood during this time of year, these sun-deprived citizens created magical characters that would visit them to bring presents and celebration. These beings ranged from elves to Gods to even goats, but two in particular pertain to the history of Santa Claus: St. Nick from the Netherlands and Father Christmas from England. In the tradition, St. Nicholas (or “Sinterklaas” in dutch) is a stern character who brings presents to children in early December. He dresses like a bishop in red and white, carries a staff, and rides a white horse through different towns, for whom children are encouraged to leave out a carrot for. Sound familiar at all? England’s Father Christmas, on the other hand, is a large, jolly pagan dressed in green with a holly wreath upon his head. Traditionally, he is less concerned with children and gifts and is more heavily associated with food, wine, and celebration. He is most famously known as the second of three spirits to terrorize Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ novel “A Christmas Carol.” When Europeans from the many different areas of Europe all settled relatively close together when the North American colonies were established, St. Nick, Father Christmas, and all of the other characters started to mix together, explaining why America’s modern “Santa Claus” (America’s take on the dutch “Sinterklaas”) has so many alternative names: St. Nick, Father Christmas, and Kris Kringle (originating from Germany), just to name a few. In the old world, each of these names were for separate characters, but in the new world, they evolved into one overtime, which can be seen in older stories.
One of the first instances of America’s gift-giving saint within American literature was the poem “A Night Before Christmas,” which came out in New York in 1823. This poem established that Santa landed on roofs, slid down chimneys, and filled stockings with toys. However, the Santa in the poem is an elf, much like those from Nordic countries. In the poem, Santa is small and drives a miniature sleigh with equally miniature reindeer, which made the fact that he slides down chimneys make more sense. Also, the word “Santa” isn’t even used in the poem, as the original title was “A Visit from St. Nick.” As the 1800s continued, the fat, human-like immortal Santa became the standard among American authors, and it was in America where Santa gained both his elvish work force and a wife. By the early 1900s, Santa had developed into his current iconic style. Also, contrary to popular belief, Coca-Cola didn’t change Santa’s colors to fit their corporate scheme, but but instead his conveniently red and white colors were used in 1931 advertisements to help sell more soda in the off season of winter. Although Coke didn’t create him, their image of Santa in their advertisements probably became the one true image people thought of when thinking of Santa. They even helped this image of Santa spread throughout the world, spreading this idea of Santa to cultures that had no traditions of gift giving during Christmas time. This American Santa in turn helped to change his magical European brethren to become more like him, with the exception of the Netherlands, which still firmly holds the idea of St. Nick as a separate character.
The last main detail about Santa that is up for debate (at least between countries) is where the jolly gift-giver and his workshop resides. In the late 1800’s, his home was the Magnetic North Pole, centered under the Aurora Borealis. Although this would be the most agreed upon location, magnetic north has since moved off of the polar ice sheet and into the ocean. Obviously, it would be a little difficult to run a busy toy factory underwater, so different countries now argue over where Santa lives. Canada claims that Santa lives somewhere in Nunavut, has given him his own postcode (which is H0H 0H0), and has even given him official Canadian citizenship. Here in the States, we claim that the north pole Santa resides in doesn’t refer to the magnetic north pole but rather to the town of North Pole, Alaska. Denmark claims that Santa lives in their former colony of Greenland, and Greenland unsurprisingly agrees. The nordic countries quarrel over where his exact location is, but Finland trumps above all others with their claim that Santa and his workshop reside in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle. Finland has actual evidence of the claim as well, for you can go visit the workshop and see all of the elves, toys, and reindeer with your own eyes, making the claim pretty strong. No matter where or what Santa’s origin is, though, he still manages to deliver all of those presents in one night, even when he stops for a cookie break at each house.