The Santa Claus we know today was conceived in 1822 by a New Yorker by the name of Clement Clark Moore after he wrote a Christmas poem for his children.
But the concept of a red-suited bringer of gifts to children is a lot older than that. There really was a St. Nicholas, a Greek bishop who was born around 280 A.D. He became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey. He had a reputation as a fiery, wiry, defender of church doctrine during the Great Persecution of 303. During the persecution bibles were burned and priests were forced to renounce Christianity or face torture, execution of jail. For ten years he languished in prison until the persecution ended in 313 with the Edict of Milan signed by Roman Emperor Constantine.
Nicholas died on December 6 around 343 but he was associated with many miracles even after his death. He is the patron saint of orphans, sailors and prisoners, and somewhere around 1200 he became known as the patron saint of children and a magical gift bringer. In one tale he saved three young girls from prostitution by secretly delivering three bags of gold to their indebted father. In another Nicholas entered an inn whose keeper had murdered three boys and put their bodies in pickling barrels in the basement. The Bishop not only sensed the crime, but resurrected the children was well. For several hundred years, he was toasted as the bringer of gifts on his feast day December 6. But he fell out of favor during the Protestant Reformation which began in the 1500’s.
For a short time, the magical gift bringer was assigned to the baby Jesus and moved to a date corresponding to his birthday. The concept of a baby bringing gifts was just too far-fetched for most people to get on board with though, so the idea was put aside. The celebration of Christmas devolved into an alcohol fueled, rowdy community free-for-all more like the pagan celebrations of the past. The only place the spirit of St. Nicholas continued was in the Netherlands where families simply refused to give him up.
In the early 19th century a group of poets and writers decided it was time for Christmas to return to being about family, and more specifically about the children. In 1821, an anonymous poem was published, “The Children’s Friend” which re-introduced Santa Claus; similar to St. Nicholas but without the religious connotations. A poem by Clement Clark Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”), written in 1822 (published in 1823) brought Santa Claus back in all his glory.
Previously, Santa had been depicted as a gnome-like man, often skinny, and even a little scary; but no matter the version, he always appeared in a red robe with white fur trim. In 1881, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, drew Santa as a rotund, apple-cheeked, smiling man with a great white beard and full mustache. This image was further exemplified by Haddon Sundblom, the illustrator of many of Coca Cola Company ads.
The heritage of Santa (the outfit, the sleigh, the reindeer, the North Pole, the bag of gifts, even the midnight sleigh ride and entry into homes via the chimney), point back to the traditions of the Koryaks (or Koriak) of the Russian Far East. These indigenous Arctic Circle dwellers lived immediately north of the Kamchatka Peninsula and inhabited the coastlands of the Bering Sea. In a celebration that occurred on the night of the winter solstice the villagers would ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms (amanita muscari or fly agaric) and the shaman of the village would embark on a spiritual journey to the tree of life which grew by the North Star. The believed that this would reveal the answer to any problems the village had encountered the previous year.
Amanita muscari are the red mushrooms with white spots that are commonly depicted as ornaments and other Christmas decorations. They grow most commonly under pine trees because their spores travel on pine seeds. They are lethal when ingested raw, but become less so when dried. The shaman of the village would harvest the mushrooms and hang them on the pine trees to dry; an alternative would be to put them in a sock and hang them over the fireplace to dry.
Another way to remove the toxins was to feed the mushrooms to reindeer whose digestive systems would filter out (most of) the toxins. The reindeer would urinate and the “yellow snow” would be collected. Eating the snow would allow the shaman to safely consume the fly agaric safely. The reindeer would become high from eating the mushrooms, but before you get upset, it didn’t hurt them – in fact, they liked it so much that there was never a lack of yellow snow.
When the shaman went out to gather the dried mushrooms, he would wear a red robe with either white trim or white dots in honor of the mushroom. Tall boots were required to navigate the deep snow. He would then gather the mushrooms in a large sack and take them home. The traditional home in Siberia at this time was a yurt, which is a round tent with a domed roof covered in skins. In the center of the roof is a ring that allows air to circulate and a chimney to penetrate the structure.
How did the shaman enter a yurt when the door was blocked by several feet of snow? Well, he climbed up to the roof (carrying his bag) and slid down the chimney of course! He would then share his “gifts” with his guests.
Consuming fly agaric induces strong hallucinations and the sensation of flying. It also stimulates the muscular system so strongly that it induces a temporary super-human strength. Reindeer experience the same physical symptoms, and would often cause them too prance and jump around; sometimes so high that it looked like they were flying.
You can see where this is going, right? The shaman and the reindeer would “fly” to the North Star (which is directly over the North Pole) and discover the gifts of knowledge, which would then be gifted to the rest of the village.
These traditions were introduced to the Druids whose spiritual practices had elements from the far north. Through migration and intermarriage they became mixed with Germanic and Nordic myths around Wotan and Odin. Odin would take a midnight ride on an eight-legged horse on the eve of the winter solstice chased by devils. The labor of the chase would make flecks of red blood fall from the horse’s mouth to the white snow where the next year amanita muscari mushrooms would grow. Somewhere in the telling the stories became merged together.
The story came to the United States with the early settlers and blended with the Dutch traditions of St. Nicholas. Up until the 19th century, immigrant groups around the country had their own version of Santa Claus. The publication of the poem written by Clement Clark Moore and the Coca Cola ad campaign brought the current Santa Claus to life.
So now we’ve come full circle. And in that spirit, HO! HO! HO! a Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it!