Christmas is a time I get a little nostalgic for the crisp days of the festive season in northern Europe. However, I am very glad that I am living in a culture that embraces Christmas so enthusiastically.
The reassuring sight of images of reindeer and the famous, jolly man dressed in red that dominate the stores and media at this time of year is familiar throughout Western cultures. What he is called does vary, though.
When I was a child in England in the 1970s, we would not have recognized the term “Santa Claus.” Even now, most British children and parents refer to this important character as “Father Christmas.”
In France, he was known as “Père Nöel,” while in Germany, he’s the “Christkind.” In the early days of the United States, his name was “Kris Kringle.” These names apparently predate the modern tradition of giving presents and instead refer to a medieval Yuletide visitor with different looks and actions in different cultures and countries. But in Victorian times (the late 1800s), most of them merged to more or less create the Santa Claus character we know and love today.
How did he originally come to America? European settlers brought their own festive traditions when they emigrated here. The figure of Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas and evolved in a rich mix of folklore, personal traditions and American commercialism. In fact, Sinterklaas is the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, and when the Dutch settlers came to America, the name became anglicized to “Santa Claus,” which rapidly took over from the old “Kris Kringle” name used by the earliest European settlers.
So who was St Nicholas? He was a fourth-century saint with a reputation for giving secret gifts and helping the needy. On the feast of St Nicholas on Dec. 6, children would leave food and drink for this saint who, parents assured them, came to visit that night and would leave gifts in exchange for these treats. This is why we still leave cookies and milk for Santa Claus today. Many countries, especially those in Europe, still celebrate St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6. There is a lot more information at www.arthuriana.co.uk, a website devoted to medieval history.
The USA, and a great Georgia-based company, are definitely responsible for how Santa is depicted today. Before 1931, Santa was pictured in many different ways — from tall and skinny to resembling an elf and not even always wearing red. Of course, Coca-Cola changed all that when it started using Santa in its advertisements in the 1920s. In 1931, the company commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom. He depicted Santa Claus as warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human for the Coca-Cola advertisements. Sundblom remained the designer of these adverts for the company until the 1960s.
Magazines and billboards showed Santa delivering toys (and playing with them!), pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, visiting with the children who stayed up to greet him, and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes. The whole story is at www.coca-colacompany.com.
For inspiration, Sundblom apparently depended on the images conjured to him by the famous poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which was written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore. This poem was originally called — and is still sometimes referred to as — “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and I can think of no more fitting way to end this festive column than with this poet’s own words, picking up from when the great man himself has been spotted:
“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!”
God bless America, and a very merry Christmas!
Francis grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her PR agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com.