Santa Clause comes to us with several names. For some he is know as Saint Nicholas, and for others Father Christmas or quite simply Santa. While people interchange Santa and Father Christmas from an historical perspective they are two different persons.
It was Saint Nicholas of Myra, who lived in the 4th century in what is now modern day Turkey, who gave birth to the modern day Santa Clause. As bishop he developed a reputation for secret gift giving.
In the Western tradition the day of gift giving is on the 25th December while in the Eastern tradition the day for gift giving is New Years Day.
Most of us see Santa as a friendly, pot bellied sort of character who rides from house to house, through the sky, on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. It is possible that the tradition of ridding through the sky comes from a Germanic tradition where the god Wodam is seen riding a flying horse through the sky. The horse has eight legs, the same number of reindeer that Santa uses!
While Santa is portrayed as a jolly man giving out present to deserving children he is also used to keep children in check. Traditionally Irish children, and a large number of their European and American counterparts, hang up a stocking for their gifts but are told that if they are not good all year round, they will receive a lump of coal instead of a decent present.
In most traditions food or drink are left out for him to help him on his journey. In Ireland it is traditionally a bottle of Guinness, in America cookies and a glass of milk, in England he receives mince pies and sherry. No wonder then that he is perceived as a happy pot bellied character!
How then did St. Nicholas make the transformation from a bishop to a jolly old man with red cheeks. The transformation did not happen all at once but over a period of time and goes back before the American revolution to the time when the Dutch controlled what is now New York. When the Dutch arrived in America they took with them the legend of Saint Nicholas, at this stage he still dressed as a bishop.
In Washington Irving’s History of New York, Sinterklaas was Americanised 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 Clauses robes changed over the years until in 1885 the modern costume was born. At around this time his horse was converted to reindeer and a sleigh, his slaves into elves and the date was moved forward to coincide with Christmas.
For those interested Santa’s eight reindeers were given their name in the popular poem by Clement Clarke Moore ‘the Night Before Christmas.’