Well, somebody has to do it. Somebody has to write about Santa Claus. Again. He's been written about so many times, his story told in so many different media, languages, filled with so many unverified myths (such as the one where he's invented by the Coca-Cola Company) that we're all kind of sick of hearing about him.
But it's always good to keep in touch with our roots, and to keep an eye on where our deepest-held traditions and stories come from. So where did Santa Claus originate? How did we arrive at a fat man in a red suit getting kids to sit on his lap in department stores?
It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Stuffed into a Sack and Thrown in the River
Well, as worried as we are about the Macy's Santa telling dirty jokes, that's nothing compared to what we had to fear billions and billions of years ago in the Middle Ages. Back then, a Greek Bishop named Nicholas became known for his genorosity and for giving gold to poor peasants so that they wouldn't have to go into prostitution in order to survive.
What a Nice Old Man!
After he died and became sainted, Nicholas's name became "Sinterklaas," which is how the Dutch say "St. Nicholas." He was also an old man with a white beard who went around giving presents to children. He rode a white horse across the rooftops and children would leave their boots filled with straw or sugar for the horse to eat. In gratitude, Sinterklaas would refill their boots with gifts.
Helpers of Questionable Provenance
Being a decrepit old man, Sinterklaas of course needed some helpers. Sinterklaas had helpers called Zwarte Pieten, which means "Black Peters." These little guys were black either because they shimmied down the chimney and got soot on their faces, or because they were Moorish slaves whom Sinterklaas had rescued. This, of course, warms our hearts like a burning Yule log, right?
Zwarte Pieten, though, were mischievous, and sometimes, instead of taking presents out of their bags and leaving them for kids, they would take bad kids out of their beds, stuff them in the sack, and throw them in the river. Zwarte Pieten were called Zwarte Pieten because Zwarte Piet was a name for the devil in the Middle Ages and, every Christmas Eve, Sinterklaas shackled the devil and made him his slave, riding him through the sky like a reindeer in order to deliver presents. What a fantastic family holiday!
. . . And the DUTCH!
The next stage in evolution came from America. Washington Irving, writer extraordinaire, wrote a book called A History of New York, available in History, Tales, and Sketches, which included a satire of the Dutch culture of New York. In this he created a very Americanized version of Santa Claus, taking away his bishop's clothing and turning him into a fat Dutch guy.
("There's only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other
people's cultures and the Dutch.")
From there it was only a short step for soda companies like White Rock Beverages and Coca-Cola to use Santa Claus in their advertisements, popularizing the image of him wearing red and white. L Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, wrote The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in 1902, a time when the myth of Santa Claus was still in flux. This allowed him to make up pretty much whatever he wanted, which was subsequently accepted as canon.
After this, songs like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" kept adding to the image of Santa Claus and his most prominent features like slave-labor and mass-production factories at the North Pole.
The Final Evolution
Under evolutionary pressure from environment and mutagens, Santa Claus realized that he needed to take on a new form in order to survive future dangers such as climate change. He evolved the ability of mitosis and now, every year, Santa splits himself into thousands and thousands of exact copies, which descend upon centers of high population, in order to bring drunken merriment to the people! This is called SantaCon and "the focus is on spontaneity and creativity, while having a good time and spreading cheer and goodwill," which is as life should be.
For Other Santa Claus Origin Information, Go to Your Library
Photo credit: dennis
Josh Pearce has one eye, two ravens, and an eight-legged, flying horse.