“Of course Santa Claus is Indian. Think about it yaar, big beard, fat belly, bad suit – INDIAN!”
Come Christmas Day, I would far rather be nursing an eggnog-induced heart attack than blogging. Hence I thought I’d get festive a little early and give you some background on everyone’s favourite alcoholic mince pie thief. You see, he’s from Asia! Well…Asia Minor.
St. Nicholas of Myra was a 4th century Byzantine about whom we do not know a great deal. He lived in what is now Turkey and between 270 and 350 (we think). He has gone down in history as a man famed for giving gifts to the poor, whilst always maintaining anonymity. The most famous legend to surround St. Nick is that of a man so poor he had no choice but to sell his daughters into prostitution as he could raise no dowry. Umm…yeah that’s what I’ll be doing when I get hard up. Anyway, the father-of-three prepared to sell his eldest to the street. St. Nick got word and under the guise of night, threw a bag of gold through the man’s window. The overjoyed man ran out of the house to see who the benevolent giver was in the morning, but St. Nick was long gone. He paid her dowry and she got married off.
The message was clear. Pretend to make your daughter a hooker and get gold. So the man did it again, some time later. Once again Nick left him gold and she got herself a fella. When it was the youngest daughter’s turn, the man waited in the shadows. When the gold came through the window, he sprinted after Nick and caught him, so that he could thank him. Nick was upset and made him promise never to reveal his identity. The man swore a solemn oath. But somehow the whole town knew about St. Nick’s kindness within a week.
I would like to take this opportunity to make the worst joke of my entire life to date. If the man hadn’t been saved by St. Nick, how would you have referred to his three daughters? Ho ho ho!
St. Nicholas died some time later and at the time of his burial, his fame was minor and limited only to the local area. Little did anyone know what fate would posthumously await him.
Today St. Nick is the patron saint of seamen, merchants, archers, children, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers, pawnbrokers, prisoners, the city of Amsterdam and of Russia. Why the FUCK do lawyers need a patron saint?! He is also celebrated as a festive gift-giver, bringing happiness to millions of children, under several different names.
In much of Europe, St. Nick retains his original name, whereas in Britain and America he is more commonly referred to as a corruption of the Dutch Sint Nicolaas >> Sinterklaas >> Santa Claus. Some facets of the Saint Nicholas tradition in mainland Europe can be traced back to the Germanic god Wodan (Odin). Odin rode through the sky and had diminuitive assistants called the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters) which may be inspired by the black raven that accompanied Wodan. It may also be a reference to African slaves.
Martin Luther was the first to combine St. Nicholas (a canonised saint) with the Christkindlein (Christ child) in order to ‘Protestantise’ the figure. Despite having a devout bishop as inspiration, the secular Santa Claus was free of the Christianity associated with St. Nicholas. Hence his popularity has spread far and wide, especially across Asia.
Some stories tell of a darker side to the fairy tale. Germanic tribes would tell of St. Nick having a nemesis, a demon called Krampus. He would crawl down chimneys and disembowel children and stuff them in his sack to eat later. St. Nick would chase the demon and make him deliver presents as repentence. Wikipedia has this disturbing passage:
But for many children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, who would threaten to beat, or sometimes actually eat the children for misbehaviour. Knecht Rupert furthermore was equipped with goatlegs. In Switzerland, where he is called Schmutzli, he would threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them back to the Black Forest. In other accounts he would throw the sack into the river, drowning the naughty children within. These traditions were implemented more rigidly in Catholic countries such as Austria. In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children’s behaviour and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten them with rod-beatings. In parts of Austria, Krampusse, whom local tradition says are Nikolaus’s helpers (in reality, typically children of poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them, even occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These KrampuslÃ¤ufe (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past.
Much in the way other countries amalgamated St. Nicholas with their native childrens’ gift-givers, Brits rolled him into the pagan character of Father Christmas (derived from Norse mythology), which created the classic Santa we see across most of the English-speaking world. An urban legend exists that Coca-Cola was responsible for inventing the Santa we know today and despite not being true, Coca Cola has had a long and close association with Santa Claus as their unofficial frontman.
The American Santa Claus was initially depicted wearing a green coat but he appeared in several different colours before red finally became a firm choice. This was largely due to the art of two men, Thomas Nast and Haddon Sundblom, the second of whom was responsible for the Coca Cola advertising. The famous and anonymous poem, The Night Before Christmas, gave rise to the image of Santa as having “a broad face and a big round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!” It was also the first time all eight of Santa’s reindeers were named.
In case I don’t get the chance to say it again, Merry Christmas everyone!
“Ho ho ho! I’m dreaming of a red X-mas!”
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