Stories of Santa

Dec 15, 2020

So this is Christmas and what do we know…
Who was Saint Nick and why Santa in snow?

So many stories, songs, images. Even if you’ve heard these stories before, I like to revisit them at this time of the year and perhaps pick up a new little insight.

From the secret gift-giver in Europe...

Saint Nicholas was of Greek descent born in a place which is part of modern-day Turkey, around 280 AD, during the time of the Roman Empire. A monk, he travelled the countryside helping people, particularly the sick and poor, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He became known as the protector of children and developed a reputation as a secret gift-giver. He became a Catholic bishop, as stories of his work spread across Europe.

Commemorating his life with celebrations on the anniversary of his death (December 6) became a strong ongoing tradition, particularly in Holland. The night before the main festivities, gifts would be left for children outside the front door, purportedly from Saint Nicholas. The Dutch called him Sint Nikolaas, which became Sinterklaas.

You can start to see connections with today’s Santa Claus: someone who loved children and secretly gave them presents the night before; a man who travelled by sleigh and lived in the snow; and the origins of the name ‘Santa Claus’. Here is an early picture depicting Sinterklaas.

 …to a ‘right jolly old elf’ in America

In the 1770s Dutch families who had immigrated to America, continued the festivities around Saint Nicholas. How the stories of Saint Nick then evolved is reflected in a poem written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore called A visit from St Nicholas - better known as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas.

This set the scene for what we know of Santa: a merry, bearded ‘right jolly old elf’ with a rounded belly and dimples dressed in fur who flies in a sleigh with his reindeer, lands on the roof, climbs down the chimney and stuffs the stockings full of toys.

The most well-known portrait of the Santa we picture today with his red suit trimmed with white fur was created in 1881 by Thomas Nast, a cartoonist. Over the years, Nast produced many images of Santa and through these, developed the Santa story where he lives with Mrs Claus in the Northpole and makes the gifts with the help of elves. This is a collation of his ideas in one artwork.

In the 1920s the Coca-Cola Company started using images of Santa in their advertising during the lead up to Christmas. As stores used this image more and more for their advertising, there came a realisation that to have a ‘real’ Santa in the store would attract even more customers.

Rudolph was also used to attract store customers. The story of the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by Robert L May in 1939. Rudolph is depicted as the ninth reindeer, leading Santa’s sleigh. Published by Montgomery Ward department store, the story was intended to attract the attention of children and add to the collection of colouring-in books they were already selling at Christmas time.

...and Father Christmas in the UK

Santa Claus started as an American version of the original Saint Nicholas but is now recognised worldwide as the Christmas gift-giver. The name Father Christmas originated in England as early as the 1600s but he did not take on the attributes of the American Santa Claus until the 1800s in his appearance and his focus on children.

Connecting with Christmas

In the early 1800s in America, there were changes happening in society and there was movement towards making the celebration of Christmas Day a more child-centred occasion - a family holiday, a time of charity, good-will and giving. The origins of Christmas Day itself are based on Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus Christ. There were gifts given to baby Jesus too, by the three kings or wise men. The date of December 25 first appeared in a Roman calendar in 336 AD. This was set as a holiday honoring the birth of Jesus. Over time, the celebrations of Saint Nicholas on Dec 6 and the celebrations for Christmas on Dec 25 merged. So Santa started giving gifts on Christmas Eve. 

Kris Kringle

Kris Kringle is another name of a Christmas gift-giver. This originated in the 1600s from a tradition with Swiss, German and Austrian families who referred to Christkindl or Christ Child. This was the time of the Protestant Reformation and it was felt that Christ should be the figure seen as the gift-giver, so a child-like version was created. Chris Kindle, Kris Kindle and Kris Kringle are derivations from the original Christkindl. This has evolved into a Secret Santa tradition where members of a group give a gift to another member. 

The stories - and the images they create 

So, through the stories of Santa, we can follow the evolving pictures of the secret gift-giver: from Saint Nicholas of centuries ago initially dressed in the tan-coloured garb of a monk as shown in this Christmas card; the traditional British version of Father Christmas dressed in green; to Santa Claus, the merry, tubby white-bearded man dressed in the red suit - was this before or after he appeared in Coca-Cola advertisements…?

Keeping the magic of Christmas alive tends to keep Santa ready for cold, winter weather. Searching Artventure for ‘Santa’ or ‘Christmas’ you’ll find lots to help you create your own images. But what about Santa in the sun and surf in summer? How would you draw Santa in a hot summer as opposed to the snow? How would he travel around Australia or your country and what animals might help him?

The concepts of gift-giving for children and a jolly man dressed in red flying a sleigh pulled by reindeer have become strong representations of Christmas. This may or may not be a time of celebration for you and your family for all sorts of reasons, least of which being the devastating impact of the pandemic. But hopefully the spirit of sharing, giving and compassion, particularly for the children in our lives, is something we can continue to promote and encourage at all times but especially at Christmas.

Teacher and Artventure Blogger