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The real Santa Claus

How did Santa become Santa?

It’s close to that time of year again. When children around the world eagerly await the arrival of a binge-drinking, morbidly obese old man heading up a secret Arctic sweatshop full of workers who never see the light of day, and whose job involves a) driving under the influence, and b) breaking into people’s houses while they sleep. 

No wonder that song begins with the words 'You better watch out' – Santa Claus is a criminally reckless liability. And yet, somehow, he’s also the symbol of the day marking the birth of Jesus Christ. Why? Really, though: why? Was someone on hallucinogenic drugs when the idea took shape? (This isn’t a flippant rhetorical question – as we’re about to see, some possible originators of the Santa myth were definitely on something a little stronger than eggnog.)

Rebel without a Claus

Any discussion of our cheery, sherry-sozzled gift-giver’s past begins with one man: St Nicholas. You know the one. Even today, most of us link Santa with Old Saint Nick, even if we don’t exactly understand why. The bare facts don’t make things much clearer either. The historical St Nicholas was a wealthy, headstrong, rule-breaking bishop who lived in modern-day Turkey in the time of the Roman Empire, and probably wouldn’t have known a reindeer from a Yule log.

The life of the saint comes to us in a gaudy wrapping of myths and legends. The key legend, the one which paved the way for his superhero-like transformation into Santa Claus goes like this. Once upon a time, a poor father of three daughters was despairing because he couldn’t afford a dowry for his girls, which meant no eligible bachelor would marry them, and they would be forced into a desperate life of prostitution instead. 

Feeling Christmassy yet? Well, don’t worry, because according to this story, the young St Nicholas came to the family’s aid. Determined to do good, but far too humble to want any undue attention for it, the brash young man visited their house in the dead of night to drop sacks of gold through their window. Over three nights, their anonymous benefactor left one sack for each girl, securing their futures. The father caught Nicholas in the act at the end, and spread the word about his magnificent generosity.

Did it really happen? Well, let’s just say it’s at least more likely than the other famous story about St Nicholas – the one about how he came across an innkeeper who’d murdered three boys and pickled their bodies in barrels, intending to sell their meat to unsuspecting customers as pork. St Nicholas not only busted the innkeeper in a Poirot move, but also brought the children back to life, Jesus-style. What a guy.

The magic man and the monster

Such fantastical exploits, along with his status as the patron saint of sailors, led to St Nick becoming venerated throughout Europe. In fact, he went 'viral',  and became the inspiration for gift-giving and medieval merry-making on his feast day in early December. In time, in Dutch culture, the historical St Nick morphed into a magical figure with a flowing beard, red garb, and penchant for distributing gifts to children who’ve been very well behaved over the year. Behold, Sinterklaas, the first readily identifiable incarnation of the figure we know as Santa Claus. Still a big deal in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe today, this proto-Santa even has his own version of elves. Except they’re not elves so much as weird mischievous helpers portrayed in public by white people in blackface. And you thought Christmas dinner with your slightly racist nan could get awkward.  

Zwarte Piet, or 'Black Pete', is a long-cherished part of the Sinterklaas saga, although it’s become deeply un-cherished by many in recent years, who regard Pete as an offensive caricature of blackness, and a throwback to the days of the slave trade. His defenders, meanwhile, argue he’s an innocent figure from folklore, and there have been some efforts to reboot the character as merely sooty-faced from clambering down all those chimneys. It’s become a political hot potato – in the hapless words of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, 'Black Pete: the name says it already. He's black. I can't change much about it.'

This entourage of increasingly dodgy minions isn’t the only bizarre off-shoot of the St Nicholas myth. There’s also Krampus, the yin to St Nicholas’ yang, the bad cop to his good cop. A kind of goat-demon hybrid abomination, Krampus is a terrifying creature from European folklore who punishes the naughty while St Nick rewards the virtuous. Curiously, Krampus has become something of a phenomenon in recent times, perhaps because he’s a snarling antidote to the syrupy sentimentality of the season. Or maybe just because hideous, sadistic goat-monsters strike a chord in our chaotic times. Either way, you definitely wouldn’t want him coming down your chimney on Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus: American icon

But, leaving aside nightmare creatures and blacked up helpers, how did St Nick eventually become the Santa Claus we all know today? This is where the New World comes in. The European tradition of Sinterklaas was imported to North America by early Dutch settlers, and after a while the writers and myth-makers of the young United States began to throw in new ingredients to make the old tradition tastier, just as you might toss chestnuts in with your sprouts (which you do, right? Everyone does that now).

One of the first was great American author Washington Irving, most famous today for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In a satirical tale published in 1809, he tweaked the familiar St Nicholas figure, making him less severe and judgemental, and re-casting him as a cheerful, flying gift-giver 'riding jollily among the treetops, or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favourites'.

Santa...had already evolved long before the big jolly Coca-Cola version made his debut in the 1930s

Some years later, in 1823, things got even more Santa-y with the publication of 'A Visit from St Nicholas', the poem we more usually know as 'The Night Before Christmas'. Scholars still debate the identity of the author, but regardless of that, this poem cemented the mental image of the modern Santa, with his 'broad face' and 'little round belly, which shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly'. Not to mention his magical sleigh and adorable reindeer. 

There was still some disagreement on what this new Santa Claus fellow actually looked like, though. Some early variations even had him resemble George Washington. It was a cartoonist called Thomas Nast who gets the credit for sketching out the first modern Santa Claus, although in his day Nast was better known as a fierce satirist whose cartoons were so effective that President Lincoln called him a 'recruiting sergeant' for the North during the American Civil War. Extra trivia tidbit to trot out over Christmas dinner: Nast is also the man who popularised the elephant and donkey as symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties, which are still used today.

But wait, what about Coca-Cola? Wasn’t the modern image of the red-and-white Santa created as an advertising gimmick by the soft drinks company? No: this story has about as much substance as a £5 Secret Santa gift from that bloke in HR you’ve never spoken to. Santa – as in a recognisably red-garbed, Santa-like Santa – had already evolved long before the big jolly Coca-Cola version made his debut in the 1930s. While Coke can take some credit for cementing the image in pop culture across the globe, they didn’t invent any of the attributes we now associate with him. Aside, perhaps, from his unlikely predilection for chugging down endless bottles of cola. 

How Santa sleighed Father Christmas

Notice that, until now, there’s been no mention of Father Christmas. And that’s because they’re not the same person. Or, rather, they weren’t until they were. Santa Claus and Father Christmas were separate figures from separate folkloric traditions who were merged in the 20th Century because having two different old men going around dressed in robes and dispensing good cheer during the festive season would have just got confusing.

Father Christmas, the proper one, has his roots in medieval England, as a personification of the festive season. Not only did he have nothing to do with giving gifts to kids, this figure was an 18-rated embodiment of hard drinking and raucous tomfoolery. This tradition continued in the Tudor and Stuart era, with people giving themselves names like 'the Christmas Lord' and even 'Captain Christmas' during aristocratic frolics.

As the Santa Claus of the United States was imported to these shores in the 20th Century, our own Father Christmas gradually became synonymous with the transatlantic interloper

Eventually, after many ups and downs (Christmas was literally cancelled under Cromwell), these traditions coalesced into the figure known as Father Christmas. The evolution was helped along by people like Charles Dickens, whose jolly, fur-gowned Ghost of Christmas Present is essentially Father Christmas by another name.

As the Santa Claus of the United States was imported to these shores in the 20th Century, our own Father Christmas gradually became synonymous with the transatlantic interloper, and their names are now interchangeable to all but the most pedantic history Scrooges. Bah

Shroom for one more?

So is that the whole Santa Claus story? You’d have thought so, except there’s one more possible explanation. An even deeper origin story which throws everything in a whole, psychedelic new light. Could the Santa saga have been inspired by magic mushrooms, in the frosty wilds of the Arctic?

Some academics take the theory very seriously, not least because it provides some explanation of why Santa is linked with the North Pole. According to this school of thought, it goes back to the distant days of Shamanic rituals among the Sami people of Lapland and other parts of northern Europe. As author and mushroom expert Lawrence Millman has written, these shamans would pursue transcendent states of consciousness by partaking in Amanita muscaria, a fungus with hallucinogenic properties. It’s known to induce feelings of euphoria and flight.

As anthropologist John Rush says, “Up until a few hundred years ago, these practising shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria, dry them and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice”. Add to this the importance of reindeer to these Arctic cultures – reindeer which might appear to fly if you happen to be knocking back mushrooms like Christmas Day Quality Street –  and you have the basic ingredients of the Santa mythology. Ingredients which, according to the defenders of this theory, trickled down and blended in with the folklore of St Nicholas. And it’s surely no coincidence that the mushroom in question is known for its distinctive red and white cap. Is it?

Well, plenty of other historians and folklore experts believe the theory is as fanciful as a red-nosed reindeer. So, as with so many about Santa, it’s all about what you want to believe about the big man. Just don’t get any ideas and slip funny fungi into the turkey stuffing – the big day will be quite stressful enough as it is.

Santa Claus stats

Number of stops he’s estimated to make on Christmas Eve: 233 million

Total distance travelled: 212 million miles

Speed of his sleigh: 1,800 miles per second

Calories consumed from treats and sherries: 72 billion

Units of alcohol consumed: 233 million

Number or reindeer required for present payload: 3 million