“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there” – Clement Clarke Moore
The magic of Christmas for children (and let’s face it, even some adults too!) lies in the excitement that accompanies the thought of Santa Claus coming down the chimney and leaving gifts. As you can see in these photographs, this magic is not just a modern-day phenomenon.
Some, like Clement Clarke Moore, have called him St. Nick, while others have known him as Father Christmas or Sinterklaas (the name of the original Dutch figure), but the concept has basically been the same across time and in various Western cultures: people waking up to stockings or shoes filled with gifts – or else presents strewn under a tree – and all the work of a jolly old man with a beard and a belly!
The name Santa Claus came about from the Americanization of the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ and was first used by the American press in 1773. Then in 1821 William Gilley wrote a poem called “SanteClaus” in which the legendary figure was depicted dressed in fur – even if it was only one reindeer pulling his sleigh.
A year later, Clement Moore developed the theme, adding seven more reindeer in “T’was the Night Before Christmas” – originally “An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicolas” – though some believe the poem was actually written by Henry Livingston, Jr.
The modern idea of Santa Claus began to develop from the image of him as envisaged by Moore (or Livingston). The poem portrays him landing on a roof in a sleigh and descending through the chimney with a bag full of presents, for example. Yet, while he is a diminutive elf with “a little round belly” in the poem, over the years he became a larger, heavier man.
Thomas Nast, a cartoonist, added to Clement Moore’s imagery in 1881, giving Santa Claus his bright red suit, elves, a wife in Mrs. Claus, and his North Pole workshop. This is believed to be among the first visual representations to capture what we know as our modern-day Santa.
Santa in Other Cultures
The idea of a magical person giving gifts to children on Christmas Day is not limited to the American or British Santa Claus. Similar mythical figures have been (and still are) known by different names in other cultures – though they have served basically the same purpose.
Christkind or Kris Kringle (who also appears in the movie Miracle on 34th Street) is an angel-type figure believed to have accompanied St. Nicholas and brought gifts to Swiss and German children.
Jultomten, meanwhile, is a cheerful elf in Scandinavian legend believed to deliver gifts in a goat-drawn sleigh, while Pere Noel was held to stock up the shoes of French children with presents.
Russia has an interesting take on the tradition. Babouschka was an old lady who sent the three wise men in the wrong direction so that they couldn’t find the baby Jesus. Although later remorseful about her actions, she couldn’t find the kings to right her wrong, so she spends her time on January 5 leaving gifts for children in the hope that one is the Christ Child. Italy has a story a little bit like this as well, but it is La Befana, a good witch, who rides a broomstick to deliver gifts.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
For more than a hundred years Santa only had his eight reindeer, but one day in 1939, Robert May – a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store – penned a Christmas poem about a poor, teased and outcast reindeer called Rudolph who saved Christmas for all the children by leading the sleigh on a foggy Christmas Eve with his now-famous shiny red nose.
Designed to get customers into the store, May’s poem worked, and has since been turned into song, translated into 25 languages, and made Rudolph the most famous reindeer of them all.
Christmas is the best time of year for millions of children around the world. Santa doesn’t go away empty-handed, though. Apart from the pleasure of giving, he too gets some treats left out for him. In America, it’s cookies and milk (or if he’s lucky maybe a little brandy!). Sherry and mince pies are often left for him in Britain and Australia, while in Sweden and Norway he’s commonly given rice porridge – good for keeping his energy levels up during the long, cold night! The animals aren’t forgotten either! In Britain, North America, Ireland and Australia, a carrot is left for the reindeer, while Dutch children will leave hay and a carrot for Sinterklaas and his horse.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night” – Clement Moore