The Many Faces of Santa
"He had a broad face and a round little
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"
Clement Moore, "A Visit from St. Nicholas"
the night before Christmas, all across the world, millions of
children will be tucked in their beds while "visions of
sugarplums dance in their heads." When they awake they will
check their stockings to see if Santa Claus has come.
Claus has become the most beloved of Christmas symbols and
traditions. The image of the jolly old elf flying in a sleigh
pulled by reindeers and leaving toys and gifts for every child
is know worldwide.
history of Santa Claus begins with a man called Saint Nicholas,
the Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. Saint
Nicholas was know for his charity and wisdom. Legends tell of
him coming from a wealthy family and giving all his money to the
poor. He also was said to posses magical powers. He died in 340
AD and was buried in Myra.
in the 11th century religious soldiers from Italy took the
remains of the saint back with them to Italy. They built a
church in honor of him in the town of Bari, a port town in
southern Italy. Soon Christian pilgrims from all over the world
came to visit the church of Saint Nicholas. These pilgrims took
the legend of Saint Nicholas back to their native lands. As the
legend of Saint Nicholas spread it would take on the
characteristics of each country.
Europe during the 12th century Saint Nicholas Day became
a day of gift giving and charity. Germany, France, and Holland
celebrated December 6th as a religious holiday and gave gifts to
their children and the poor.
the Dutch colonists traveled to America, they brought with them
their Sinterklaas, an austere bishop who wore a red
bishop's costume and rode on a white horse.
American image of Sinterklaas would gradually evolve
into that of a jolly old elf. He was first described as a plump
and jolly old Dutchman by Washington Irving in his comic History
of New York. In 1823 Sinterklaas/Saint Nicholas'
metamorphosis continued with the publication of Clement Moore's
Visit from St. Nicholas (Twas the night before
In the 1860s cartoonist Thomas Nash drew pictures of a plump and
kindly Santa Claus for the illustrated Harper's
Weekly. This image of Santa Claus was becoming ingrained in
the minds of the American people. As time went on this image of
Santa Claus traveled across the globe, back to Europe, to South
America, and elsewhere.
countries have kept their own customs and traditions of Saint
Nicholas. In some cultures Saint Nicholas travels with
an assistant to help him. In Holland, Sinterklaas sails
in on a ship arriving on December 6th. He carries a big book
which tells him how the Dutch children have behaved during the
past year. Good children are rewarded with gifts and the bad
ones are taken away by his assistant, Black Peter.
Germany Saint Nicholas also travels with an assistant,
known as Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, or Pelzebock,
and comes with a sack on his back and a rod in his hand. Good
children receive a gift, but naughty children are punished by
the assistant with a few hits of the rod.
Italy La Befana is good witch who dresses all in black
and brings gifts to children on the Epiphany, January 6th. In
many Spanish countries; Spain, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and South
America, the children wait for the Three Kings to bring their
France Father Christmas or Pere Noel bring
gifts for the children. Switzerland has the Christkindl
or Christ Child who bears gifts. In some towns children
await the Holy Child and in others Christkindl is a girl-angel
who comes down from heaven bearing gifts.
Scandinavian countries celebrate with an elf, called the julenisse
or the juletomte who bears gifts. And in England Father
Christmas, an more austere and thinner version of Santa
Claus, brings gifts.
North American it is the round and plump "Ho Ho Ho'ing"
Santa Claus who flies in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeers
delivering toys to the children of the world.