Known by many names – Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santy, Santa, and Claus – this modern day jolly ole fellow who brings gifts to “nice” children, has his origins in many cultures. Thought to be have been the forerunner of all historical Claus-like figures, the Nordic god Odin bears the Old Norse names that mean “Yule figure” and “long-beard.” He was the cloaked, gift-bringer of the north who rode the sky on his 7-footed steed. During the Christianization of Germanic Europe, modern day Santa Claus also absorbed elements of Odin, who was associated with the pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. The Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, known as the Christmas man who rode on a horse, is also one of Santa Claus’ presumed predecessors, and remains today the predominant gift-giver to children in the Netherlands. Saint Nicholas of Myra, the 4th century Greek bishop and generous gift-giver to the poor, also influenced this story by putting coins in the boots, shoes and socks of youngsters. The British figure of Father Christmas dates to 16th century England during the reign of Henry VIII. He was typified as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur, and bringer of good cheer, peace and joy. The Father Christmas celebration was moved to December 25 to coincide with Christmas Day, as England no longer kept the feast day of St. Nicholas. Santa was popularized in the U.S. in the 19th century, first by the book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve published in New York in 1821. It contained “Old Santeclaus,” an anonymous poem describing an old man on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. In 1823, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and works by the caricaturist Thomas Nast canonized modern day Santa Claus. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was written anonymously, and later claimed by Clement Clarke Moore. History has another account about the possible penmanship as that of Major Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828). We know the familiar verse as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DONDER and BLITZEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
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!”
Reference material taken in part from the following sources: The History Channel and poets.org