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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Santa Claus- A Character of Fact or Fiction

By Tom Morrow

With Christmas right around the corner, youngsters are going to bed at night dreaming (or hoping) Santa Claus will grant their wishes for that magical morning.

Was Santa Claus a real person? If so, who was he, if, indeed, he ever existed.

Santa Claus, a.k.a. many names: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santy, or simply Santa is a figure with legendary, historical and folkloric origins who, in many Western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children on Dec. 24, the night before Christmas Day.

The modern figure of Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, whose name is a dialectal pronunciation of Saint Nicholas, the historical Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra. During the Christianization of Germanic Europe, this figure may have absorbed elements of the god Odin, who was associated with the Germanic pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.

Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, joyous, white-bearded man — sometimes with spectacles — wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots and who carries a bag full of gifts for children. Images of him rarely have a beard with no moustache. santa_old

Santa’s image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children’s books and films.

(As an aside, which has nothing to do with the subject at hand, cartoonist Thomas Nast created a term in the English language from his often sharp stabs at political figures.. His drawings became known as “Nasties.” Hence, the common phrase of “that’s nasty” or “you’re being nasty” was created).

Since the 20th century, in an idea popularized by the 1934 song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” Santa Claus has been believed to make a list of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior (“naughty” or “nice”) and to deliver presents, including toys, and candy to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and sometimes coal to the naughty children, on the single night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of the elves who make the toys in the workshop and the flying reindeer who pull his sleigh. He is commonly portrayed as living at the North Pole and using the phrase: “ho ho ho” often and whenever possible.


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