#FolkloreThursday: The Many Layers of Santa Claus

[CW: sex trafficking, violence towards children]
**As with many of my posts, there is way too much to cover in one small space. I encourage y’all to follow the links and sources so you can see what I missed. There’s just so much. I could honestly write an entire dissertation about the myths and legends of Santa Claus.**

The santa clause GIF - Find on GIFER

This week is technically a holiday week for #FolkloreThursday but I wanted to do a little something about one of my favorite wintertime figures (editor’s note–it’s not just a little bit). As with all of the deities that we’ve discussed, Santa has worn many, many names over the last two millennia. And yes, I did say “deities.” If you think that a figure who can do all the things that Santa can do isn’t a god, you haven’t been paying attention. So, let’s begin!


Odin - Wikipedia
Georg von Rosen, 1886

Before we talk about Saint Nicholas and the Christianization of winter holidays, we have to talk about Odin. Yes, that Odin. Norse All-Father Odin. If the connection–outside of the glorious white beard–doesn’t hit you, let me explain.

Long before Saint Nicholas showed up, Odin was being celebrated by the Germanic and Norse people during Yule. Then, as now, it was common practice to bring the outdoors inside through the liberal application of evergreen boughs, wreaths, mistletoe, and Yule logs. This celebration lasted for twelve-days and involved feasting on boar, drinking entirely too much, and gift-giving. And speaking of gifts…

While it was believed that Odin was the leader of the midnight rides of the Wild Hunt it was also said that he would ride the sky at mid-winter on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, to deliver gifts to people. He delivered these gifts by dropping himself into chimneys and fire-holes on the solstice. It was this aspect–coupled with his long white beard, gaunt figure, and craggy features–that would later be grafted onto Saint Nicholas, speaking of whom…

Saint Nicholas:

Jaroslav Čermák, Mid-19th Century

Okay, so he’s not the jolliest looking fellow. But you can definitely see the connection between portrayals of Odin and St. Nicholas. And, I mean, he was a 4th century Christian bishop so I’m willing to bet he was not the life of the party. Having said that, the legends attributed to Nicholas appear to be those of kindness and generosity, even though the earliest legends don’t involve giving gifts to good little girls and boys, at least not in the way we know.

Historians are almost really pretty sure that Nicholas existed. Unfortunately, the only thing they seem willing to go to bat on is that there was a bishop named Nicholas in Turkey who died sometime around December 6th, possibly in 343–plus or minus a few years–and that he definitely had an impact in the area.

The legends seem to have begun with a story about a wealthy young man named Nicholas who, after his parents died, began giving money to the poor. In the course of this philanthropy Nicholas became aware of a dire situation involving three young women. The father of the young women had lost all of his money–possibly to Satan which is as good an excuse as any–and so could not afford dowries for his three daughters.

Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries, Bicci di Lorenzo (Italian, Florence 1373–1452 Florence), Tempera and gold on wood
Bicci di Lorenzo, 1433-1435 (I love the way he’s perched up there, just hucking that bag of gold through the window. The woman in green looks like she’s been hit in the head at least once already)

In order to save the young women from being forced into sex work (that’s a whole other pile of baggage that we can unpack at a later date), Nicholas heaves a bag of gold through the family’s window one night. The father is able to use this as a dowry and the first daughter is sold off into marriage instead of sex work (again, too much to unpack). Once Nicholas hears about the marriage, he goes back and heaves another bag of gold through the window, allowing the second daughter to be sold off. He returns after hearing of the second marriage but the father was waiting for him, to thank him. Nicholas gives him the third bag of gold and begs him to keep the whole thing secret, which the father clearly didn’t do.

An interesting thing about this is that, according to a historian who was quoted on the Wikipedia article, the reason that this story is believable is because Christians were less shitty to women in the 4th century. Women had a larger role in the church at this time and garnered more respect, so Nicholas’s concern for them instead of just their father would make sense. The Christian church didn’t get really mean and dismissive about women until later (see Lilith, Perchta, and Mother Holle). So, I mean, that really doesn’t paint anyone here in a good light but okay?

These next three legends I’m going to discuss, though, are the reason that he also became known as “The Wonderworker”:

1. On a trip to the Holy Land his ship got caught in a terrible storm but Nicholas “rebuked” the waves until they settled down. Thus did he come to be known as the patron saint of sailors and travelers.

2. After returning from the Holy Land, Nicholas entered into a situation wherein three innocent men were going to be executed. Nicholas intervened by pushing the executioner’s sword away, freeing the men, and chastising a bribed juror (his rebuking finger is always on point).

3. This is the one that made me post a content warning but it’s also a great example of how convoluted legends can become: during a time of famine, a cruel butcher lured three children to his shop, butchered them, pickled them, and tried to sell them as pork. Nicholas was able to see the truth of the matter and resurrected the children by making the sign of the cross over the barrel.

Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, 1503-1508

The reason that this third story is so interesting is because, in later paintings and reproductions (like the one above), Nicholas was often depicted with three naked, living children in a barrel. The context was completely lost for those that didn’t know the original legend. And so Nicholas became the patron saint of children and of brewers, which is not only hilarious, but also harkens back to Odin.

The final, interesting thing I’ll mention is the fact that, of the four legends of Saint Nicholas that I’ve recounted, three of them involve threes: three sisters, three condemned men, three children. Numerology is an old belief, y’all, and certain Christian sects love allusions to the Trinity.

Matrix Trinity GIFs | Tenor

Whatever the case of his life and his miracles, Saint Nicholas would reign as the supreme depiction of our beloved Christmas gift-giver until the 15th century, when a new name would appear, though the face remained essentially the same.

Father Christmas:

Pamphlet Illustration, 1658/1678

It would be a grievous understatement to say that England was going through some religious turmoil in the 15th and 16th centuries. Father Christmas sits right in the middle, as a bit of a bridge between old traditions and new. He first appeared in the 15th century, as a personification of the mid-winter holidays. His presence called back to pagan Yule traditions that had slowly been merging with newer Christian traditions.

In these early centuries, he had varying names, like “Sir Christëmas,” who featured in a 15th century carol:

Buvez bien par toute la compagnie,
Make good cheer and be right merry,
And sing with us now joyfully:
Nowell, nowell

It was Ben Johnson’s play–Christmas, His Masque–in 1616 that would give him the name of Father Christmas. It was in this century that Father Christmas gained more ground among writers as a rhetorical tool when discussing the Puritan attacks on Christmas (which would be the ACTUAL war on Christmas, y’all). There is a lot more involved in these centuries but the gist of the matter is that Puritans ruined everything, like they always did, and Christmas was cancelled, from 1644 to 1660. During this period, quite a few writers were not having this and they let their feelings be known:

Me thinks my Lord, the very Clouds blush, to see this old Gentleman thus egregiously abused. if at any time any have abused themselves by immoderate eating, and drinking or otherwise spoil the creatures, it is none of this old mans fault; neither ought he to suffer for it; for example the Sun and the Moon are by the heathens worship’d are they therefore bad because idolized? so if any abuse this old man, they are bad for abusing him, not he bad, for being abused.

King, Josiah (1658). The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas

Father Christmas’ popularity would wax and wane over the next few hundred years. However, he really hit his stride in the 19th century, when he was revived and refreshed. Since England no longer celebrated the Feast of Saint Nicolas on December 6th, the celebrations were moved to December 25th, the supposed date of Christ’s birth (again, something to unpack at a later time).

Howitt’s Journal of Literature and Popular Progress, London 1848

It was in this period that we see him starting to become the figure that we know today but he wasn’t quite there yet. So we’ll need to go back to Europe and back to Saint Nicholas.


Artist Unknown, 1866

Sinterklaas is essentially a continuation of the celebrations of Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of children. These celebrations take place every year on December 6th–Saint Nicholas Day–in Belgium, Luxembourg, and northern France (French Flanders, Lorraine, and Artois).

The importance of bringing up SinterKlaas is in how he traveled to the New World with the Dutch, and what he did when he got here. If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods you’ll be familiar with the idea of how gods had to evolve and adapt in order to survive once their followers carried them to America. This is basically what happened with Sinterklaas.

Here’s where it gets convoluted and tangled. It is believed, though not by everyone, that Sinterklaas arrived in America via the Dutch who settled in upstate New York in the 17th-18th centuries. This idea is bolstered by Washington Irving’s 1812 revision of his book A History of New York, in which he described a dream of Saint Nicholas flying over the treetops in a wagon. The 1823 publication of the most well-known story in Christmas tradition, Clement Clark Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, was inspired by Irving’s “dream,” and seemed to merge the ideas of Sinterklaas with Father Christmas, thus helping to further the image of Santa Claus that we know today:

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!’

Sorry, y’all. I had to. Anyway, American Santa wasn’t solidified just yet. Thomas Nast would use Moore’s description to create the visual that really helped put it all together:

Thomas Nast, 1881

From there, Santa Claus took off in American popular culture. Mrs. Claus was first mentioned in 1849, and was likely an allusion to the Victorian Culture of Domesticity. Santa was a hardworking man and he needed someone at home to keep the elves (servants) in line and the home fires burning. References to her were brief until Katherine Lee Bates’ poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride,” in 1889, which gives Mrs. Claus some agency and a real voice:

Home to womankind is suited? Nonsense, Goodman! Let our fruited
Orchards answer for the value of a woman out-of-doors.
Why then bid me chase the thunder, while the roof you’re safely under,
All to fashion fire-crackers with the lighting in their cores?

Good on Goody Santa Claus! Anyway, what really hammered home the American ideal of Santa Claus was the 1931 introduction of the Coca-Cola Santa Claus:

Coca-Cola Christmas: The 30s
 Haddon Sundblom, 1931

The image of Santa morphed over the decades, of course, until he was mostly just a dude in a boring and generic red suit, which brings me to one of my deepest moral conflicts: the 1994 movie, The Santa Clause.

Y’all, I love this movie so much. I mean, I was 18 when it came out but I still love it like a child would. And at the time that it came out, I was deep in my neo-Victorian phase, so seeing a Santa that had such a gorgeous, elaborate, Victorian-looking suit thrilled me. And they did a fantastic job on Tim Allen. HE LOOKS LIKE VICTORIAN SANTA! But, the actor is also a terrible person and his views are absolutely abhorrent to me. And too, there are definitely problematic elements to the movie, which you’ll have for a movie from the ’90s. But I still watch it, every year, and I probably will until I die.

Disney classic The Santa Clause is a must-see (again) | Movies | San Luis  Obispo | New Times San Luis Obispo
The Santa Clause, 1994

One last thing, in case you’re wondering about the Kris Kringle of it all… in the 16th to 17th century, during the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther promoted the idea of Christkindl. This was a Christ Child figure that brought presents to children. This was another instance of moving dates from December 6th to December 25th. Children aren’t to look for the Christkindl or they won’t get anything. Honestly, the whole concept reminds me of Elf on the Shelf so I don’t like it but! Christkindl was eventually Anglicized to… Kris Kringle. This inevitably rolled into the growing and evolving legend of Santa Claus and here we are.

As I noted at the top, this post in no way covers the entirety of Santa-related mythology. This is a big story and it has more branches than I could ever hope to cover. But I wanted to give y’all an idea of just how expansive and old this legend is. But that’s part of the magic, right? Santa is ever-present and all knowing. He has god-like powers, and there is a very valid reason for that. Santa fills a mid-winter role, no matter if you’re pagan or some denomination of Christian. He’s the jolly old elf that we (many of us, at least) know and love and wait for with baited breath. He’s the very spirit of the mid-winter season, and he should have more respect than he does. He’s a busy dude, and has been for two thousand years, and personally, I am thankful for his existence.

As an aside, if you want to see Santa moving through some of his different incarnations, I suggest you watch The Librarians, season 1, episode 4, …and Santa’s Midnight Run. Bruce Campbell plays Santa’s human avatar and it is so delightful.

DeYoung, Kevin. “Who Was St. Nicholas?” The Gospel Coalition, 6 Dec. 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/who-was-st-nicholas-2/.

“Five Things You Never Knew about Santa Claus and Coca-Cola – News & Articles.” The Coca-Cola Company, https://www.coca-colacompany.com/company/history/five-things-you-never-knew-about-santa-claus-and-coca-cola.

Harris, Karen. “Odin and Santa: The Norse God Delivered Gifts with an Eight-Legged, Flying Horse.” History Daily, 9 Dec. 2019, https://historydaily.org/odin-and-santa.

Ives, Maura. “Remembering When Mrs. Claus Cracked the North Pole’s Glass Ceiling.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 17 Dec. 2021, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/mrs-claus-literature.

“How the Vikings Gave Us Christmas.” Sky HISTORY TV Channel, https://www.history.co.uk/articles/how-the-vikings-gave-us-christmas.

Moriarty, Tom. “The History of Father Christmas.” English Heritage, 2021, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/christmas/the-history-of-father-christmas/#:~:text=The%20English%20Origins%20of%20Father,a%20gentle%20giver%20of%20gifts.

“Santa Claus.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 16 Feb. 2010, https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus.

Stuart, MacKenzie. “The Fascinating Folklore Origins of Santa Claus.” Explorethearchive.com, 18 Dec. 2020, https://explorethearchive.com/where-did-santa-claus-originate-from.

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