So goes the account I grew up with, at least. But considering that there is nothing Biblical or ecclesiastical about this story, it's rather remarkable that even late Christendom would be so fervid in celebrating it. So where did it come from? Who is this curious character we call Santa Claus or Father Christmas?
It should be noted when discussing the history of such figures that sometimes mythic images recur without an obvious direct connection on the level of historical fact. History in general is full of remarkable coïncidences, but this is especially the case when we are dealing with mnemohistory, that is, the history of things as they are remembered and not necessarily as they happened. Santa Claus is a curious example of this; as we'll see, there are certain correspondences between our modern Santa and other images revered at different times and in different places which seem to transcend any obvious historical connection.
First, though, the most obvious historical connection: St. Nicholas of Myra. In the high-church Christian tradition many miracles have been attributed to his intercession, and there are stories of miracles he is said to have worked in his own lifetime. He was known for gift-giving; he apparently had a habit of leaving coins in shoes that had been left out for him, and in memory of this it became tradition in some places for children to leave their shoes out on the eve of his feast day (December 6th in the West and the 19th in the East) with a small gift in hopes of getting something in return. That we leave out stockings for small gifts today would seem to follow after this.
Perhaps the most famous legend of St. Nicholas' generosity is that of his giving of purses of gold coins to the three daughters of a poor man, so that they would have dowries and not be forced into prostitution—of especial note is that he gave these in the secret of night so as not to draw uncomfortable attention, throwing them through a window into their house, or in some variations of the tale, down the chimney. There is also a story, less historically verified, of his resurrection of three children who had been murdered by a butcher and put into a barrel to be sold as ham; accordingly he is the patron saint of children.
In the Middle Ages his was, as one would well expect, a day for gift-giving. But under the Reformation, as saints' days were deëmphasized if not rejected entirely, gift-giving was instead done on Christmas, with Martin Luther suggesting the Christ-child as the giver of gifts. It is from a German hypocorism for the Christ-child that we get one of Father Christmas' aliases in English: Christkindl became Kris Kringle. And through the Dutch Sinterklaas we get Santa Claus.
Some time before the Reformation, however, the spirit of Christmas had already been personified. A carol from the pen of one Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree in the southwest of England in the middle of the 15th century, reads as follows:
Nowell, nowell.The respectful title of Father seems to have become more important to this "Sir Christmas" as the 16th century gave way to the 17th and Puritanism emerged as a cultural force, and especially when Puritans came to power in England (during the Commonwealth, 1649-1660) and in New England (where the public observance of Christmas was illegal until 1681 and abhorred for generations to come). The Puritans distrusted the old customs of communal feasting and wine-fueled merriment and sought their prohibition, and those in defense of Christmas tradition proffered the image of the kindly old gentleman who promoted not excessive consumption but good cheer.
Who is there that singeth so, Nowell, nowell?
I am here, Sir Christèmas.
Welcome, my lord Sir Christèmas!
Welcome to all, both more and less!
Come near, come near, Nowell, nowell.
Dieu vous garde, beaux sieurs, tidings I you bring:
A maid hath borne a child full young,
Which causeth you to sing: Nowell, nowell.
Christ is now born of a pure maid;
In an ox-stall he is laid,
Wherefore sing we at abrayde: Nowell, nowell.
Buvez bien, buvez bien par toute la compagnie.
Make good cheer and be right merry,
And sing with us now joyfully: Nowell, nowell.
A number of 17th-century satires portray this conflict. In the anonymously published Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas, a lady Royalist and a town crier search for the merry father whose absence is keenly felt; John Taylor's The Complaint of Christmas laments the sight of "the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster". In Josiah King's The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas, Father Christmas is taken before a judge and jury and various virtues and vices personified, such as Mrs. Prudence, Mr. Mean-well, and Simon Servant, have their say either for or against him. His detractors accuse him of inciting lascivity and riotousness; his defenders praise his temperate virtue, peace-making and goodwill. In some cases from the early modern period onward he is invoked as a rebuke to gentry unwilling to feast the poor as per tradition, or to those shirking the seasonal injunction to generosity in general.
And of course from about the mid-19th century onward the names Santa Claus and Father Christmas are fully understood to be synonymous, and certain familiar characteristics become canon, such as the red coat, the troupe of reindeer, and the use of chimneys.
A more tenuous connection, historically speaking, is that between Santa Claus or Sinterklaas in particular and the old Germanic god Odin. During the time that later became associated with the Nativity of Christ, the peoples whose pantheon included Odin celebrated Yule, which in Scandinavia, according to Heimskringla, involved feasting and drinking:
It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part of the drinking of ale.Toasts were made on this occasion to Odin (who would grant victory), to Njörðr and Freyr (who would grant peace and a good harvest), and to the king, as well as to ancestors and departed relatives.
Now Odin has a long beard and rides his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, through the heavens; Santa, too, has a long beard and is pulled along by eight (or later, nine) reindeer, or in his Dutch form rides a horse. And Odin of course was toasted as the patron of Yule just as Santa heralds the Christmas season.
There are other parallels to be noted between Odin and Sinterklaas which are even more historically tenuous but are nonetheless worth mentioning. For one, compare Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who keep him informed on the goings-on in Midgard (that is, the human world), and Zwarte Piet (who helps Sinterklaas much as the elves do in the North American tradition): in both cases the old bearded patron of the feast has black-faced helpers. Just as tenuous but even more endearing is the resemblance between Odin's having given the runes—that is, written language—to man and the eating of chocolate letters by Dutch children in honor of Sinterklaas. Whether or not these elements are actually historically related—which is doubtful for the most part—is hardly relevant; what's important is that, for whatever reason, the same image recurs at the same time of year.
Now let's turn to another part of pre-Christian Europe. In Rome at what is now called Christmastime, feasting and drinking were enjoyed and lords of misrule were chosen, just as Puritans would complain was happening among Britons over a thousand years later. This was Saturnalia, during which Saturn, whom we might now call Father Time, temporarily took over from his son Jove and returned men to a time of primal joy. Catullus (Poems, XIV) calls it "the best of days". Gifts were given, games of dice were played, and the whole people made merry:
During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, colorful dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted in public, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season (Martial, Epigrams, XIV.1). Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen, a role once occupied by a young Nero, who derisively commanded his younger step-brother Britannicus to sing (Tacitus, Annals, XIII.15).Lucian of Samosata, in his Saturnalia, records a conversation between Saturn and one of his priests, in which the god declares that while it is for his son to grant riches of gold and slaves, his own domain is that of more carefree pursuits:
Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters' clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god.
Mine is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.It should be pointed out that the hat now associated with Santa bears a striking resemblance to the pileus as well as to the Phyrgian cap, which by confusion with the pileus has become a symbol of liberty in recent centuries. Also of note is that Saturn's venerated statue, made of ivory, wore a scarlet cloak (Tertullian, De testimonio animae, II). Woolen fetters around its feet were loosened during his brief yearly reign to signify his liberation. Being associated with his Greek form of Cronus, he was also honored according to "Greek rite" (ritus Graecus), with the head uncovered, rather than capite velato, that is, with the head veiled by a fold of the toga. Servius (Ad Aenaeidem, III.407) notes that since Saturn himself was depicted as veiled (involutus), it accorded with the role reversals of the season that the god would be veiled and the worshipper not. Plutarch (Quaestiones Romanae, II) says that the god is veiled because he is the father of truth (the highest truths being inherently mysterious). And it would seem oddly fitting with this spirit of reversal that St. Nicholas would save three children from being eaten, given that Cronus is said in the myths to have eaten his own children.
So we have a jolly bearded god in a red cloak who presides over the happiest time of year, during which gifts are exchanged, social norms are relaxed, and drunken feasts are enjoyed. If that isn't Father Christmas, then I know nothing of the holiday.
Again, whether or not any of this was directly passed down historically is completely immaterial; what matters is that for whatever reason, Europe and her diaspora have a recurring tendency to make the last two weeks of the year an occasion for merriment and to imagine the presiding figure over this occasion to have certain perennial characteristics.
And to return to matters of history for a moment, who better to be the human reference point for a pagan figure surviving into Christendom than he who shares his name and title with another St. Nicholas from the same region, Lycia, who as late as the mid-sixth century sacrificed seven calves for a feast in a Christian chapel? According to Gustav Anrich's Life of Nikolaos of Sion:
...the clergy of Plenios came in a procession with the congregation of the faithful, chanting and with the venerated crosses, and met the servant of God [Nikolaos] at the chapel [of St. George]. From there he went with them with seven calves. They went into the chapel of the holy George and he sacrificed the seven calves, and the crowds gathered so that there were two hundred couches. The servant of God supplied enough to distribute a hundred measures of wine and forty measures of wheat, and everyone ate and was filled and thanked God who gave grace to his servant Nikolaos...As Anrich notes, such an account "shows us the survival of the old sacrificial meal made over into Christian form"—a microcosm of the Christmas experience, no? And why not? As Statius (Silvae, I.6.98ff) cheered during the reign of Domitian toward the end of the first century:
Who can sing of the spectacle, the unrestrained mirth, the banqueting, the unbought feast, the lavish streams of wine? Ah! now I faint, and drunken with thy liquor drag myself at last to sleep. For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue.And indeed, age has failed to destroy Saturnalia. It has taken on the addition of a new narrative from Christianity, and through the resultant syncretism has become merged with Yule (which remains the name of the holiday in several European countries); it has also more recently taken on massive commercial baggage. Yet underneath the accruements of the ages, so holy a day we still keep.
So who is Father Christmas? We can say assuredly that under diverse names and with various alterations of form, he has been with us a very long time. As was famously written in the New York Sun to one little Virginia who had asked whether there was a Santa Claus:
You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.And didn't we note something earlier about veils?
No Santa Claus! Thank GOD! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Io, Saturnalia! Good Yule! and Merry Christmas!