Santa Claus and his forebears

Santa Claus by nineteenth-century illustrator Thomas Nast
Santa Claus by nineteenth-century illustrator Thomas Nast

Written by Heather Elvidge

While you’re hunting for Christmas gifts, spare a thought for Santa. He has to find presents for everyone in the whole world, and deliver them all on one night.

As Mr Claus toils away in his cabin at the North Pole, portraits of his forebears keep a keen eye on his progress.

Among all the wrapping paper on the table is a framed postcard of a jolly, red-cheeked man, holding a bottle of soft drink. Claus scowls, turns the postcard face down, and carries on peeling a tangle of sticky tape from around his hand.

Across the candle-lit room hangs a Victorian oil of Old Father Christmas, a strong, hearty fellow wearing a long, green robe and a crown of holly. He stands in a snowy forest, holding a small fir tree and a steaming wassail bowl. No piles of presents for him to wrap, his gifts were good cheer, food and drink. Claus rather envies him.

Over there, in the fancy frame, Sir Christemas raises a pewter tankard. A star of stage plays and folk dramas, he survived banishment by the Puritans in 1647. The things he got up to after the Restoration — then every family has its rogue.

But not every family has a saint. A small icon hangs next to Sir Christemas, outshining him with its glowing colour and gold leaf. St Nicholas wears the mitre, vestments, and expression of a fourth-century bishop. Legendary for his habit of leaving gifts for the poor and needy, he was famous world-wide by the eleventh century.

Claus finishes the parcel and glances at the lines on the candle clock. It’s time for a snack.

As he makes for the pantry he pauses to look at an old tapestry. The rowdy characters always cheer him up.

There’s Yule’s wife spinning thread on her distaff, a sly reminder of the Fates who spin out the lives of women and men. And there’s the man himself, ruddy-faced Yule, with a big bread loaf and a huge joint of meat, all set for a medieval blow-out. Claus opens the pantry door. He hopes the elves haven’t eaten all the ham.

He takes the cheese sandwich to his favourite chair. Over the hearth there’s a carved wooden panel, bordered with runic letters and dark with the smoke of ages. A bearded, one-eyed figure rides across the sky on an eight-legged horse, cloak billowing out behind him. Down below, men in pointed helmets grasp their shields and shake their spears.

Claus sighs. The carving gives him the shivers and he’d rather it wasn’t there, above the fire. But moving it would risk the wrath of Odin. Time to get back to the parcels.

Gift givers

For centuries, Santa’s forebears lightened winter’s darkest days. Their festival of eating, drinking and merrymaking was aimed at adults, and linked to the winter solstice and the returning sun.

Children had their patron saint, Nicholas, but after the Reformation the customs 
associated with his feast day on December 6 were banned. It was different on the continent, where youngsters in various countries still receive their presents on December 6, Children’s Day.

When Dutch Protestants settled in North America, the saint and his gift-giving habit went with them. It was there that he underwent an unlikely metamorphosis during the 19th century. With the addition of some Nordic folklore St Nicholas became Santa Claus, a jolly old elf.