Santa Claus is a fictional character of the Christmas and winter seasons. He is the combination of the main subject of several different stories, including the tales of Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, and real-life St. Nicholas of Greece. Santa is depicted in various ways around the world, based on how these stories have come together over time, but in the West, he is shown as a jolly, fat man with a white beard and red suit. He lives at the North Pole, rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer, enters homes of good children once a year via the chimney and delivers toys. People generally consider him to be a symbol of goodwill, hope, magic, and joy, but in some regions he is controversial.
St. Nicholas, or St. Nick, was the biggest influence on the Western version of Santa Claus known today. He was a man of Greek origin, born in the 3rd century. His family was very wealthy, but both of his parents died in a plague while he was quite young. Surviving the epidemic, Nicholas took his strict Christian upbringing very seriously and devoted his life to God.
Nicholas rid himself of all his material possessions and set out to help the poor, the infirm and anyone else who was suffering. One popular story describes how he secretly left bags of gold for three poor women who had no dowries. In St. Nicholas’ time, a father could only secure the marriage of his daughters by providing a dowry to her would-be husband. If a father could not afford this, he risked his daughters being sold into slavery. In order to prevent the sale of the daughters of the poor women, St. Nicholas threw the bags of gold through a window, and they landed in stockings left by the fire to dry.
Tales of the saint were very popular in the middle ages, and many communities built churches out of devotion for him and held celebrations on St. Nicholas Day, which is celebrated in modern times on 6 December, the date of his death. The Vikings held him in high esteem and considered him to be the patron saint of ships. In the 8th century C.E., the Vikings spread his good name during their travels. Dutch settlers, who called him "Sint Klaas," introduced St. Nicholas to North America.
Kris Kringle derives from the German Christkindl, which translates to "Christ Child" in English. Supported by Martin Luther as a push against the commercialized traditions of St. Nicholas' Day, this figure is a young boy, the representation of a young Jesus. Traditionally, he would come into homes and leave gifts, which Luther used as a symbol of the gifts of Christianity and the Gospel. The legend goes that the Christkindl appears only when residents of the home are asleep, and therefore is never seen personally.
Also known as Old Man Winter, Father Christmas was a traditional figure during the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. His story asserts that he travels from home to home, and that people offer him food and drink. He grants blessings of a kind winter in return.
The Melding of the Traditions
The stories and legends behind Kris Kringle, Old Man Winter, and St. Nicholas gradually merged together over time. The tradition of Santa going from home to home has origins in Old Man Winter, while the Vikings’ use of St. Nicholas might have contributed to the idea of Santa using the “ship” of a sleigh. The idea of him delivering presents comes from Kris Kringle, with parents still telling children that Santa will not come if they do not go to sleep. People hang stockings based on the story of the poor women St. Nicholas helped, and kids leave cookies for Santa as a modern extension of giving food and drink to Old Man Winter.
Different areas of the world have slightly varying interpretations of Santa Claus, based on how the stories of Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, and St. Nicholas joined. In Great Britain, for example, people still use Father Christmas, but the British version has taken on some of the attributes of the Western Santa. The names for the different characters are interchangeable in many regions.
In the West, people routinely dress up as Santa Claus during the Christmas season. Some people do this simply for fun and because they like what he stands for, and others do it for the enjoyment of children, who go to Santa and explain what they want for gifts. Individuals also dress up as a reminder of the giving spirit of the Christkindl and Old Man Winter, such as when individuals are trying to collect donations on behalf of the poor.
This character appears in virtually every medium, including drawings, paintings, and sculptures, as well as in movies and TV shows. Depictions vary drastically in style, with some being true to the historical traditions while others are intended to be funny and cash in on current trends. One of the most common places for his image to appear is on gift wrapping paper.
Not all individuals support the idea of Santa Claus. Critics claim that it is cruel to get children to believe he is coming to their house when, in reality, Santa is a collection of different traditions rather than a real person. They assert that finding out the truth about Santa might be psychologically distressing and have long-lasting effects. Others cite finances as a problem. Some parents have trouble affording gifts to provide as having been brought by Santa, but they are usually considered necessary if the parent wants to perpetuate the concept of him being real.
Santa Claus also is controversial among members of the Christian faith, even though he connects to Jesus through Martin Luther’s presentation of the German Christkindl. Christians criticize him as taking attention away from the “real” message of the holiday season, the story of Jesus’ birth and the salvation of the world. They assert that he supports outdated pagan rituals and ideas.