St Nicholas and Santa Claus

We might not recognise it, but our modern Christmas celebration owes much to St Nicholas. Not to mention that his feast day on 6 December (or 19 December in the Julian calendar) is celebrated in many parts of Europe, especially with gifts for children.

“Saint who?” you might ask. Told to name a saint, depending on where they are from, British people might proffer St George, St David, St Andrew or, at a pinch, St Christopher. But St Nicholas was once one of the most popular saints in Britain: there are over 500 churches dedicated to him. Moreover, he is the patron saint of Noo Yoik, Russia and Greece. Middle English derived the name Nicholas from Old French, which comes from the Latin Nicolaus, which in turn comes from the Hellenistic Greek Nikolaos (Νικόλαος), from nikē, ‘victory’ + laos, ‘the people’.

The cult of St Nicholas became hugely popular across Europe, especially after the transferral of his remains to Bari in Southern Italy in the eleventh century. In the Netherlands, his name of Sant Nikolaas was popularised and transformed in dialect into Sinterklaas, Sante Klaas, hence Santa Claus, and his fame survived even the Reformation. On his feast day of 6 December, all sailors and ex-sailors – who made up a large proportion of the population – would go to church, and on the way back stop at the Nicholas fairs to buy presents for their family, particularly their children, who would thus receive presents on St Nicholas’ Day.

Even today, in Belgium, and especially Flanders, Sinterklass, dressed in scarlet bishop’s robes, sporting a luxuriant white beard and crowned with a mitre, gives presents to good children. And in the Netherlands, apparently, about a third of the population give presents only on St Nicholas’ Day. Similar traditions exist, inter alia, in the Italian-speaking cantons of Switzerland, in Northern Italy and Slovenia, and elsewhere.  

Canterbury Cathedral has revived the celebration of this saint’s day, and at Hereford Cathedral the tradition of electing a boy ‘bishop’ from the choristers to lead service on this day has been reinstated.

But how did St Nick become the Santa we know?

’Twas the Night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

New York was founded by the Dutch as New Amsterdam, and in its early history families of Dutch heritage wielded cultural influence. For instance, on 26 December 1773 the New York Gazette reported that Dutch families had gathered to celebrate ‘the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus.’ Then, in 1809, Washington Irving (of Rip Van Winkle fame) helped to popularise St Nick by naming him patron saint of New York.

The Santa tradition was starting to snowball (pun intended) and then the 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (more commonly ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’) by Clement Clark Moore, published in a local magazine two days before Christmas, helped establish the iconography or mise-en-scène of Christmas. This included stockings hung expectantly on either side of the hearth, a miniature sleigh drawn by eight named reindeer, the sleigh full of toys and the descent down the chimney.

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

As for those reindeer, the rein– part has nothing to do with the harness Father Christmas might strap round them; it is merely the way their Old Norse name hreindӯri has been anglicised down the ages, deer being used for the second element which was originally dyr, the Norse for ‘animal’, equivalent to German Tier. Today we know them as …

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen
Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen

In the original, though, Donner was Dunder and Blitzen was Blixem, which were closer to the Dutch words for ‘thunder’ and ‘lightning’.

Santa Claus, meet Father Christmas

A print of 1801 is the earliest to show St Nick mounted on his sleigh, a bearded figure, dressed in red and wearing what looks like a tall Russian-style fur hat. In ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’, he is obviously diminutive (to get down that chimney) and

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

He is also described as ‘chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf’* and

He had a broad face and a little round belly

That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly.

The word Christmas goes back to Old English, where it appears in the form Crīstesmæsse, ‘mass of Christ’. Over time its central letters became simplified to the form we know today.

Celebrating Christmas historically was a period of uproarious fun, a period of a general knees-up and jollity lasting twelve days, starting on 26 December up to 6 January, namely ‘Twelfth Night’, as in the Shakespeare play. (Shakespeare refers to Christmas three times and to Yule not at all.)

The Puritans viewed such merriment as sacrilege, and it became a bit of a political football in the seventeenth century and was formally banned by Parliament in 1647.

Though Christmas had been personified by Ben Jonson in Christmas, His Masque in 1616, it wasn’t until 1652 that the figure of Father Christmas first appeared – in a political pamphlet. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the personification of Christmas was kept alive by mummers, but he played little or no part in domestic festivities. If represented, it was as a bearded old man wearing a long, fur-trimmed robe, crowned with a holly wreath, sometimes brandishing a holly bough and holding a wassail bowl of steaming drink. In Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol,the Ghost of Christmas Present wears a fur-trimmed green robe, sits next to a wassail bowl and has spread before him plum puddings and other comestible treats.

Then, from the 1850s onwards in Britain the figures of St Nicholas and Father Christmas begin to merge as Christmas becomes more and more a festivity for the benefit of children. By the 1850s the spelling becomes more or less fixed as Santa Claus, and there was even a Liverpool–New York transatlantic liner of that name.

In the United States, an artist of German origin, Thomas Nast, was largely responsible for fixing the image of Santa in the popular imagination. In particular, an illustration of 1881 of ‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ shows him clad in red, bearing a backpack crammed with goodies and cradling toys against his chest with his left arm while in his right he holds a clay pipe.

It is sometimes stated that Santa’s red attire is an artefact of Coca-Cola advertising. This is a bit of an urban myth or urban legend. It is true that Haddon Sundblom, an American artist of Finnish–Swedish descent, in his Coca-Cola Christmas-themed advertising from 1931 to 1964 created an enduring image of Santa as a jolly, bearded old man dressed in fur-trimmed red. The ubiquity of that image has reinforced the redness of Santa’s attire. But Santa had been portrayed as wearing red many, many times before that.

And talk of urban legends brings us back circularly to saints. The word legend originally referred to accounts of a saint’s or saints’ lives to be read in church, from the gerundive (feminine singular or neuter plural) of the Latin legere, ‘to read’, which is also, ultimately, the ancestor of English lecture, legible and lesson.

And what of St Nicholas?

Who was he? Did he really exist? Yes, he (almost) undoubtedly existed. Though the events of his life are only recorded in later sources, he probably lived from ad 270 to 343 in what is now Turkey and became bishop of Myra, modern-day Demre, and may even have suffered under the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian.

According to tradition, he came from a wealthy family but donated all his possessions to the poor. Three particularly colourful legends – among many others – attach to him. First, three sisters whose father had fallen into poverty thus lacked money for their dowry, and their unmarried future looked bleak (this was the fourth century, remember). St Nicholas surreptitiously dropped a bag of gold coins through their bedroom window on three successive nights, thus enabling them to marry. Second, journeying back from the Holy Land by sea he was caught in a storm. He rebuked the waves, causing the storm to subside. Third, a miracle of much later provenance widely illustrated in the Middle Ages recounts how, by simply doing the sign of the cross, he resuscitated three young boys who had been slaughtered and pickled in brine by an unscrupulous butcher during a famine.

His clandestine charity to the three girls is, at a far remove, the ancestor of our contemporary gift-giving at Christmas. His becalming of the sea means he numbers sailors among the gallimaufry of people he is called on to protect, who include scholars and schoolchildren, brewers, pawnbrokers, the unmarried, repentant thieves and archers. And, as the pickled children miracle suggests, he also protects children generally.

* An elf is a far, far cry from how we visualise Santa/Father Christmas today, and from his mirthful character. Derived from the Old English ælf, it has cognates in Old Norse, the Scandi languages and the old-fashioned German word Alb for a nightmare (or a demon believed to cause them).

By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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