Santa Claus

A common portrayal of Santa Claus.
A common portrayal of Santa Claus.

Santa Claus (also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle or simply Santa) is the North American and British variant of the European folk tale of Saint Nicholas, explaining the source of Christmas presents given to children on Christmas Day. He forms part of the Christmas tradition throughout the English speaking world as well as in Latin America and Japan.

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, he visits children on the New Year's Day and is identified with Saint Basil whose memory is celebrated on that day.


The story

Conventionally Santa Claus is portrayed as a kindly, round-bellied, merry, bespectacled man in a red suit trimmed with white fur, with a long white beard. On Christmas Eve, he rides in his flying sleigh lifted by reindeer from house to house to give presents to children. To get inside the house, he comes down the chimney and lands in the fireplace. During the rest of the year he lives together with his wife Mrs. Claus and his elves who serve as his toy production staff. His home is usually given as either the North Pole in the US and Canada, Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland, Dalecarlia in Sweden, Greenland, or Caesarea when identified as Saint Basil; traditions vary.

Among virtually all adults the nonexistence of Santa Claus is a given, but many young children believe strongly in his existence. A majority of parents, at least in English-speaking households that celebrate Christmas, either actively attempt to convince their children of Santa's existence, or at least keep the source of their children's presents a secret from them and so fail to disprove the myth. Children who believe in the existence of Santa often tend to lose such beliefs by early primary school, as their ability to distinguish fantasy from reality improves and older children disillusion them.

There is an occasional controversy in parenting as to whether it is appropriate to perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus to children. Some parents are concerned that it is wrong to lie to children and that it can be traumatic to learn that there is no Santa Claus. Other parents believe that it is no more harmful than any other folk tale, and that it can help children gain confidence in their maturity in themselves to discover the "secret" of his existence. Furthermore, many children, upon being disillusioned, often maintain the pretense for younger siblings so they can enjoy the belief themselves for a bit longer.


The modern Santa Claus is a composite character made up from the merging of two quite separate figures:

The first of these is Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century bishop of Myra in Lycia, a province of Byzantine Anatolia that is now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they wouldn't have to become prostitutes. He was born at Patara, province of Lycia, Asia Minor. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In Europe he is still portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. The relics of St. Nicholas were translated to Bari in southern Italy by some enterprising Italian merchants; a basilica was constructed from 1087 to receive them and a pilgrimage site was established.

In Greece, Santa Claus is portrayed as being a spirit of Saint Basil (Vasilis in Greek), a bishop from Caesarea who traditionally comes to Greece on New Year's Day riding on a donkey. Recently though, Greek tradition has conformed to have Santa Claus come around Christmas time.

The second character is Father Christmas, which remains the British name for Santa Claus. Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 17th century in Britain, and pictures of him survive from that era, portraying him as a well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long, green, fur-lined robe. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and was reflected in the "Spirit of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

Some elements of this part of the tradition of Father Christmas could be traced back to the Germanic god Wodan (Odin). The appearance is similar to some portrayals of this god, who brought gifts in the winter season of Yule, and rides a flying horse through the sky.

When the Dutch still owned the land that later became New York, they brought the Saint Nicholas' eve legend with them to the Americas, but without the red mantle and other symbols. The name "Santa Claus" is derived from the character's Dutch name, Sinterklaas. In Dutch, the feast is called Sinterklaas Feest, celebrating the birthday of Sinterklaas during Sinterklaasavond ("Sinterklaas's Evening") on December 5 (or, in Belgium, on December 6).

In Washington Irving's History of New York, Sinterklaas was Americanized to "Santa Claus" but lost his bishop's apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. Irving's book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention. Santa Claus appeared in various colored costumes as he gradually became amalgamated with the figure of Father Christmas, but red soon became popular after he appeared wearing such on an 1885 Christmas card. His horse was converted to reindeer and a sleigh, the black peters (which were in fact Moorish slaves) were converted to elves, and, in an attempt to move the origin of the festivities away from their pagan background to a more Christian one, the date was moved back a few weeks to the celebrated day of the birth of Jesus: Christmas. Another popularization is A History of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum, the same man who wrote the Wizard of Oz.

In the United States, the tradition is to leave Santa a glass of milk and cookies; in Britain, he is given sherry and mince pies instead. British and American children also leave out a carrot for Santa's reindeer, and were traditionally told that if they are not good all year round, that they will receive a lump of coal in their stockings, although this practice is now considered archaic. Children following the Dutch custom for sinterklaas will "put out their shoe" — that is, leave hay and a carrot for his horse in a shoe before going to bed—sometimes weeks before the sinterklaas avond. The next morning they will find the hay and carrot replaced by a gift; often, this is a marchpane figurine. Naughty children were once told that they would be left a roe (a bundle of sticks) instead of sweets, but this practice has been discontinued.

Many postal services allow children to send letters to Santa Claus pleading their good behavior and requesting gifts; these letters may be answered by postal workers or other volunteers. (Canada Post has a special postal code for letters to Santa Claus: H0H 0H0.)

Some people have created websites for Santa on which children can send e-mails to Santa Claus requesting gifts and telling of their good behavior.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been immortalized in a Gene Autry song, written by a Montgomery-Ward copywriter, which is frequently played at Christmas. As such, he is typically included as the sleigh's lead reindeer. The names of all the other reindeer were invented in the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (better known today as The Night Before Christmas) ascribed to Clement Clarke Moore, although there is some question as to his authorship. The reindeer are traditionally pictured with antlers, although male reindeer shed their antlers in the winter. (Female reindeer keep their antlers until spring.)

Many Christian churches dislike the secular focus on Santa and the materialist focus that present-giving gives to the holiday. They would prefer that focus be given to the birth of Jesus, their nominal reason for the Christmas celebration. It should be noted that the festivities at this time of year are predated by the Roman Saturnalia and Yule festivals which were subsumed within Christianity. It should also be noted that the date of Jesus' birth is not known. The connection between Saturnalia and Jesus' birth was a clerical decision in order to introduce a religious element into the more carnal festivities that the Christian laity were indulging in during winter solstice.

In multifaceted ways, the legend of Saint Nicholas of Myra was blended with North European folklore. As an example of the still surviving pagan imagery, in Nordic countries there is the Yule goat (Swedish julbock), a somewhat startling figure with horns which however will deliver the presents on Christmas Eve, and a straw goat is a common Christmas decoration. Later, though, in Sweden and Norway, the gift bringer was seen as identical with the Tomte, or tomtenisse, another folklore creature. In Finnish, the Yule Goat survives in the gift bringer's name, joulupukki.

Historically, one of the first artists to capture Santa Claus' image as we know him today was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. In 1862, a picture of Santa illustrated by Nast appeared in Harper's Weekly. It is believed the inspiration for his image came from a mythical German character called Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas) who visited naughty children in their sleep. Urban legend has it that Santa Claus in his current guise (particularly his red and white attire) was created by The Coca-Cola Company, but this is in fact false; the modern image of Santa Claus was already established in the 1920s, years before the first Coke-promoting Santa was pictured1. The vigorous promotion has caused Santa Claus and Coca-Cola to become closely associated, however, and to this day, Santa Claus still appears on Coca-Cola products each year around Christmas time.

The depiction of Santa at the North Pole reflected popular opinion about industry. In some images of the early 20th century, Santa was depicted as personally making his toys by hand in a small workshop like a craftsman. Eventually, the idea emerged that he had numerous elves responsible for making the toys, but the toys were still handmade by each individual elf working in the traditional manner. By the end of the century, the reality of mass mechanized production became more fully accepted by the Western public. That shift was reflected in the modern depiction of Santa's residence—now often humorously portrayed as a fully mechanized production facility, equipped with the latest manufacturing technology, and overseen by the elves with Santa and Mrs. Claus as managers. Many TV commercials depict this as a sort of humorous business, with Santa's elves acting as a sometimes mischievously disgruntled workforce, cracking jokes and pulling pranks on their boss.

A current popular comic book series "Jingle Belle" by writer/cartoonist Paul Dini depicts Santa Claus as harried father with a rebellious half-human, half-elf teen age daughter.

Possible parallel origin

American mycologist Jonathan Ott suggests in his book Pharmacotheon (ISBN 0961423498) that many of the modern features attributed to Santa Claus may somehow be derived from those of the Kamchatkan or Siberian shaman. Apparently, during the midwinter festival (holiday season) in Siberia (near the north pole), the shaman would enter a yurt (home) through the shangrak (chimney), bringing with him a sack of fly agaric mushrooms (presents) to give to the inhabitants. This type of mushroom is brightly colored red and white, like Santa Claus, though the relevance of this is questionable as the standardised red and white Santa dates from no earlier than 1920. The mushrooms were often hung (to dry) in front of the fireplace, much like the stockings of modern-day Christmas. Furthermore, the mushrooms were associated with reindeer who were known to eat them and become intoxicated. Reindeer are also associated with the shaman, and like Santa Claus, many people believed that the shaman could fly. For more information, see this excerpt ( from The Physics of Christmas: From the Aerodynamics of Reindeer to the Thermodynamics of Turkey by Roger Highfield (

"Santa Claus" in shopping centers

Santa Claus is also a costumed character who appears at Christmas time in department stores or shopping malls, or at parties. He is played by an actor, usually helped by other actor(s) (most often mall employees) dressed as elves or other creatures of folklore. His function is either to promote the store's image by distributing small gifts to children, or to provide a seasonal experience to children by having them sit on his knee, state what they wish to get, and often have a photograph taken. The area set up for this purpose is festively decorated, usually with a large throne, and is called variously "Santa's Grotto", "Santa's Workshop" or a similar term. In America the most notable of these is the Santa at the flagship Macy's store in New York City - he arrives at the store by sleigh in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on the last float, and his court takes over a large portion of one floor in the store. David Sedaris is known for the diary he kept while working as an elf in the Macy's display, which he later published.

Velocity of Santa Claus

A calculation of the average velocity of Santa Claus can be done along these lines: Assume a world population of 6 billion people, with an average of 3 people per household. Use 1.5 × 108 square kilometers of land on the earth. This gives an average household density of 10 households per square kilometer, with approximately 350 m between each household in a uniform geometric distribution. Assuming he goes linearly from house to house, and takes 24 hours to cover the distance, we find that he covers 700 billion meters in 86,400 seconds, a velocity of 8 million meters per second, or .03 times the speed of light. At this speed, he would almost certainly burn up in the atmosphere. Shifty Bits' site on the matter (, or read this article (

Christmas gift bringers around the world

See also: Christmas around the world

  • Santa Claus
  • Father Christmas (United Kingdom)
  • Saint Nicholas or "Saint Nick"
  • Weihnachtsmann (Germany) means "Holy Night Man"

See also

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