Christmas Special: Santa Claus and other Winter figures

Hi all, since it’s Christmas and I’m feeling festive, here is a post on the Origins of Santa Claus! He goes by many names, including Father Christmas, St. Nick and Kris Kingle, many people across the world seem to believe in some sort of gift-giving figure and holiday. Never mind the idea of Christmas not being entirely Christian, it seems Santa is not just an invention that Coca-Cola and the candy companies dreamt up.

Christmas has inspired much of fiction; from Dr Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” and “The Nutcracker” to “A Christmas Carol” and pantomimes.

The origin of “Christmas”:

Christmas has celebrated in different ways before the Christians hijacked the idea with the Nativity and birth of Jesus. Most notably, we have the pagan winter festival Yule, which is where the end of the dark nights was celebrated, on around December 21. People hung Mistletoe, holly and ivy as decoration and lit Yule logs. Candles of massive size  were also lit to symbolize the rebirth of the sun (not Jesus as the Light of the Earth, my dear Christian readers), and spiked oranges or apples spiced with clove were eaten (sorry die-hard Church-goers; looks like the Christingle isn’t Christian either).

Then we have Saturnalia, which is in honour of the god Saturn (as the name clearly indicates). It’s assumed that December 25 -p or December 17th in the julian Calendar –  is chosen since this Roman god Sol’s birthday, and the Roman Catholics chose this day as Jesus’s birthday too so they couldn’t be persecuted. In short, everyone took a day off work of all kinds, and nobody could declare war on this day. Not only was there a public banquet, but Masters gave their Slaves a banquet too, and the roles were reversed. It was also the one day of the year where people could gamble, women could socialise more freely with men, and slaves could pretend to direspect their masters. And yes, people did give gifts during Saturnalia; usually pottery or wax figurines, and children received toys.


1. Figures in history and folklore

First up, we have St. Nick. In his red and white robes, these were thought to be influential in the modern Santa Claus’ outfit. He put coins in shoes that people left out for him. He often helped people out, such as providing three daughters with dowries and reviving three murdered children.

Another religious figure is Christkind, who is popular in France, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary and other countries. He resembles a golden cherub. He is never seen in person, and is either meant to be Jesus as a child or a reference to an angel bringing gifts to Jesus. He leaves Chrust,as presents under the tree. Kris Kringle is anglicised from Christkindl, and the Amerucan name for Santa.

2. Cultural variants

There are many gift-giving figures across the globe. In the West, we have Sinterklaas and Ded Moroz in folklore, whilst Saint Nick and Father Christmas are historical figures. Ded Moroz, otherwise known as Grandfather Frost, is a figure in Russian folklore. He resembles a wizard or sorcerer, with a long staff, dressed in robes and cap of red and white (a possible influence for his clothing). Together with his granddaughter, The Snow Maiden, they deliver gifts to children in Slavic countrieson New Year, in by a sleigh pulled by three horses.

Sinterklaas, is a Dutch figure believed to be based on Saint Nicholas. He wears a bishop’s robes, rides a white horse, and has a book of which children have been naughty and nice. Children put carrots in their shoes by the chimney for his visit. He has a companion named Black Pete, who is dressed like a 17th century page. He carries a bag filled with candy for good children a a willow broom to spank naughty ones with.

The Norse people thought that Odin rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, as he rode in the night during the Wild Hunt which occurred during Yultide (since supernatural figures were more likely to be seen then). He wore a blue robe with a hood and had a gray-White beard. He delivered gifts to people and transformed into Father Christmas.

But even in the Far East we have similar figures. For example, Hotei (or Budai in Chinese) is the God of prosperity, and carries a cloth sack with him. He wears prayer beads and is followed by small children. Whilst the reference is fairly obscure, he is chubby and carries a sack just like Santa.


Interestingly, Countries like Japan and Dubai – both renowned for their cosmopolitan cultures and commercial capitals of the world – celebrate Xmas in their own little way. For many, Christmas is a cultural/commercial holiday that many engage in, surrounded by mediated images and paraphernalia.

In Japan, people put up Christmas trees, write seasonal greetings cards saying ‘Meri Kurisumasu’ and eat Christmas cake. They have their own gift-giving tradition called Oseibo, and are given to people like your work colleagues, often sake or soap. In Dubai, the malls are decorated with Christmas trees, and pantomimes such as Aladdin are played. It’s a bit more difficult to accommodate, however, because Islamic religion possibly interfering with things such as Jesus and the drinking of alcohol being involved.

Another figure, although at the wrong time of year, is also present: Modhesh. He is a yellow, cheerful character with his own theme-park and appears in shopping malls in the summer. Kids have a “Meet & Greet” where Modhesh and his other companions take photos with kids (sound familiar?)
like Santa, Modhesh’s icon is everywhere and inescapable. It’s uncertain who or what inspired the creation of this character.

Overall, Christmas isn’t just a cultural tradition anymore, because we don’t know what Christmas truly is.


Further Reading:

The Christmas Encyclopedia, 3rd edition

Saturnalia: Wikipedia



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