- This article is about the Christmas gift-giver. For the saint, see Saint Nicholas.
Santa Claus, or simply "Santa", is an American popular cultural icon. He has been a regular staple of the American observance of Christmas for about two centuries or more, and as well as much of the world. Santa Claus brings presents to good children every Christmas, rides a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer and lives at the North Pole.
The ultimate basis of Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Myra. In the ninth century AD, coincident with the Muslim invasion and re-invention of Roman Asia Minor as the Ottoman Empire, the bones of Saint Nicholas were transported to Europe. The many legends about this bishop--including a persistent legend about the "manna" coming from his body after his death--fostered the growth of new legends of Saint Nicholas being somehow larger than life.
Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam brought with them the tradition surrounding this new legend of Saint Nicholas, whom they called Sinter Klaas in their language (and still do today). With the British takeover of New Netherland by troops loyal to the then-incumbent Duke of York, this mythical character gained a new name: Santa Claus. In the early nineteenth century, at least three prominent Americans contributed to the Santa Claus legend we know today:
- Washington Irving
- Clement C. Moore, author of The Night Before Christmas
- Thomas Nast, the famous cartoonist, who, in 1881, drew the classic portrait of Santa Claus that survives today. (The image of Santa was progressively elaborated by illustrator Thomas Nast, who depicted a rotund Santa for Christmas issues of Harper's magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s.)
Features of Santa Claus
The hallmarks of the legend of Santa Claus include:
- A village located at the North Pole, containing a toy factory and other facilities for the production and distribution of toys via a sled driven by flying reindeer.
- An uncanny ability to know whether any child has been "good" or "bad," typically in the form of a list of all children, appropriately categorized.
- Rewards for the good, and punishment for the bad. Traditionally, the good children receive toys and the bad lumps of coal.
- A requirement for belief: Santa is said to deliver only to those who believe in him. Non-believers get nothing.
- Secret comings and goings to make deliveries, via the chimney. In homes without fireplaces, some flexibility is required.
- Placement of small candies and similar "party favors" in children's stockings. Children are encouraged to leave a gift in return on Christmas eve - tradition dictates a mince pie, a glass of sherry, and one or more carrots for the reindeer.
- Accomplishment of all this order fulfillment and delivery on one night of the year: the night of December 24-25. The date may vary in different cultures.
- Anonymous, "Santa Claus Facts, Origins, and Fun Tidbits," Lone Star Internet, 2006. Retrieved April 16, 2007
- Clement Clarke Moore, "The Night Before Christmas (A Visit by St. Nicholas)," 1823. Retrieved April 16, 2007, from Santa Claus Facts, Origins, and Fun Tidbits