Just about everyone in the world knows that jolly toy-bearing Christmas figure from the North Pole, but how much do we really know about him? The character we all love so much was actually created by mixing together several ingredients including the memory of an important Christian saint, the practices of North European Shamans, and the marketing wits of an all-American mega brand. Here are a few quick trivia questions about our beloved Santa.
Q: Where does the name Santa Claus come from?
A: The name Santa Claus was derived from Sinterklaas, the Dutch term for the ancient Christian figure of Saint Nicholas who was famous for his generosity to the poor (more about him later). The Dutch immigrants to America imported their gift-giving saint to New Amsterdam where he merged with his British counterpart, Father Christmas, to become America’s own Santa Claus.
Q: everyone knows that Santa lives in the North Pole, but where is the real St. Nicholas from?
A: St. Nicholas who many consider to be the inspiration for the modern Santa Claus was born in Patara around 275AD. Patara is located in present day Turkey, on the Southern Mediterranean coast in what is today an international tourist resort area where visitors spend hours basking in the warm Mediterranean sun. Certainly not a place you would want to be wearing fur coats in.
Q: If you really wanted to find St. Nicholas today, where would you go looking?
A: You may enjoy a trip to the North Pole, but if you really want to honor St. Nicholas, you would do better by heading towards Italy, where the remains of St. Nicholas are stored in the basilica of St. Nicola in the city of Bari. They have been there since the 11 century when they were, uh… borrowed… from their previous resting place in Myra in present day Turkey.
Q: Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and his companions take Santa on his rounds completely airborne. How is it that reindeer can fly?
A: Many people believe that the tale of flying reindeers (as well as other parts of the Santa story), originates from Lapland in modern day Finland. In ancient times, reindeer had a habit of seeking out the hallucinogenic amanita mushrooms which they ate and then would prance around while under their influence. As these mushrooms are quite toxic, it was regular practice for local shamans to drink the urine of tripping reindeer for a “safe high” and then “fly” together with them. This could also explain the general cheerful disposition (with the “ho ho ho” and all), and the flushed red cheeks of today’s Santa.
Q: Where did Santa get his unique outfit?
A: While it’s no secret that the marketing people of Coca Cola have a lot to do with the modern image of Santa, some say the roots go way back. The same North European Shamans that liked to consume those red and white mushrooms with their reindeers used to wear quite a similar outfit when they went out to collect their pickings – red and white fur trimmed coats with long black boots. As implied above, it’s quite certain that St. Nicholas was no inspiration for this outfit, as he lived in sunny south Turkey.
Q: Who was the first to create Santa’s modern image?
A: Coca Cola still uses the iconic images of Santa which were hugely successful in the 30s, and created for it by the gifted artist Haddon Sundblom, an American of Swedish origin (does Northern Europe ring any bells here?). However the modern image of Santa was only standardized in his works, but had actually been developing for years before. Coca Cola wasn’t even the first beverage company to make commercial use of every child’s jolly toy bearing hero – a company called White Rock beverages used him to sell ginger ale and mineral water as early as 1915. However earlier versions wore a wide variety of colors. Coca Cola’s Santa is the one the finally set the record straight, and since then Santa has been wearing nothing but Red and White.