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Who was Santa Claus?

The image of a red coated, jolly, plump man bringing gifts at Christmas is now part of universal folklore. Everyone immediately recognises the image, likewise the associated stories of Santa’s home at the North Pole where he makes toys in his workshop helped by the Christmas Elves, and finally delivers them in one night using flying reindeer who pull his magical sleigh through the air.

The origins of Santa go back centuries. The concept is primarily linked to St Nicholas, a fourth century bishop of Myra in Turkey. The Bishop was renowned for his generosity towards the poor frequently providing donations in secret such as the dowries given to three impoverished girls.

During the Middle Ages, children were given gifts on his name day – December 6. Change came during the sixteenth century due to the Reformation when Protestants wanted to focus on Christ rather than the Saints. Gift giving became centred around Christ’s birthday, on December 25.

Despite this, links with St Nicholas continued. In France, he is known as Pere Noel, while in the Netherlands and Belgium he is known as Sinterklass and St Nicholas. He often arrives by boat. Children leave a shoe out for him, with a carrot for his horse. There are festivities too such as the Krampus events, where Saint Nicholas dressed in his Bishop’s robes roams the streets accompanied by Black Peter and the Krampus Devils seeking out naughty children. In the German regions of Switzerland, Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus with a big twig broom.

Folklorists have also drawn comparisons between Santa Claus, St Nicholas and the Norse God Odin. Odin was often portrayed as an old man wearing a big blue cloak and hat, with a long beard. He was said to ride the skies on an eight footed steed known as Sleipnir in order to bring gifts at Midwinter.

Santa’s Reindeer

No Santa stories would be complete without his reindeer. Yet these represent relatively new folklore developed over the past two hundred years. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem entitled A visit From St Nicholas, which later became known as the Night before Christmas or ‘Twas the Night before Christmas. The poem lists Santa’s reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixen. Rudolph didn’t join the reindeer crowd until 1939, when American writer Robert L May created a story featuring him. Ten years later, the song Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer appeared and the catchy tune has swept the world.