Santa Claus has become the protagonist of the contemporary Christmas scene. One only needs to take a look at any commercial advertising regarding shopping, festive events or holiday travelling. The portly, white-bearded grandpa in red clothes is smiling in each illustrated brochure and every second TV commercial. One is likely to meet him in person at malls, department stores, funfairs and Xmas parties. He will greet passengers at airports, too, since he is a real globetrotter nowadays. Santa Claus has conquered great parts of the world irrespective of the countries’ native traditions and religions.
The most typical outlook of Santa Claus resembles the classic American image which was adopted and further developed by the Coca Cola Company in the 1920-30s. The annual Coca Cola ads are still featuring Santa in massive brand identity campaigns around the globe, which reinforces the predominance of the American figure. Therefore, people abroad sometimes talk about Coca Cola Santa when they refer to the prevailing image, but it is by far not the only version of Santa. There has been substantial variation in his appearance over time, although many European characters have proved less competitive than the victorious ho-ho-ho-man.
While American-style Coca Cola Santa is being exported and copied successfully worldwide, how should we conceive this adaptation? Are we dealing with either cultural imperialism or cultural misappropriation?
Before answering these provocative, complex questions, it might be useful to take a step back and investigate Santa’s history and origins in order to understand the big picture. As you will see, it is indeed quite a mess. Let’s start with his predecessors, who encompass both a real historical person and diverse folklore figures.
Saint Nicholas of Myra alias Sinterklaas
The legend of Santa Claus stretches all the way back to the 4th century, when Asia Minor (present Turkey) was an integral part of the Roman Empire. Saint Nicholas (March 15, 270 – December 6, 343) was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent from the maritime town of Myra (modern-day Demre). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.
Although he was born in an affluent Christian family, Saint Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. He made a reputation as a bringer of gifts. Much admired for his piety and kindness, Saint Nicholas became the subject of many legends.
In one of the earliest attested and most famous incidents from his life, he is said to have rescued three girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping a sack of gold coins through the window of their house each night for three days so their father could pay a dowry for each of them. Another famous legend tells how he resurrected three children, who had been murdered and pickled in brine by a butcher planning to sell them as pork during a famine. Other stories tell of him calming a storm at sea, saving three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution, and chopping down a tree possessed by a demon.
The feast day of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 5 or 6. Saint Nicholas Day is known in most European countries, but it is particularly popular in the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France and parts of Germany where it has been the chief occasion for gift-giving during the winter holiday season. Parents pretend to act on behalf of Saint Nicholas as his helpers and fool children into thinking that Saint Nicholas has really given the presents.
The Dutch-speakers call Saint Nicholas Sint-Nicolaas in their language. Sint-Nicolaas, in turn, was transformed to Sinterklaas in colloquial Dutch. Sinterklaas is a shortened form of Sint Nicolaas. The name Santa Claus evolved from this Dutch nickname. Hence, Sinterklaas is one of the sources of the current Christmas icon.
Sinterklaas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773 and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.
[References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus | https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus]
Pagan Germanic Folklore
Prior to Christianization, the Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of the English, celebrated a midwinter event called Yule. During this period, supernatural occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. The leader of the Wild Hunt was the pagan god Odin bearing – among many names – the names Jólnir, meaning “Yule figure”, and Langbarðr, meaning “long-beard”. Folklorist Margaret Baker argues as follows:
“The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded gift bringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed horse, visiting his people with gifts. Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with Saint Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage.”
With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, Yule departed from its pagan roots and underwent Christianised reformulation. Numerous traditions were nevertheless absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmastide. Many present-day Christmas customs, such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar and Yule singing, may have connections to older pagan Yule traditions.
Cognate words to Yule are still used in the Nordic countries and Estonia to describe Christmas holidays. The Swedish word for Christmas is jul; the Finnish equivalent is joulu. Both of them are pronounced somewhat like Yule in English. When a Swede or a Finn wishes Merry Christmas, he/she says: Gud Jul! Hyvää joulua!
Father Christmas, England
Father Christmas is the traditional English name for the personification of Christmas. Although known as a Christmas gift bringer and often considered to be synonymous with Santa Claus, he was originally part of a much older and unrelated English folkloric tradition.
The custom of merrymaking and feasting at Christmastide first appears in the historical record during the High Middle Ages (c 1100–1300). This almost certainly represented a continuation of pre-Christian midwinter celebrations in Britain (cf. Yuletide, view previous chapter). The first known English personification of Christmas was associated with merry-making, singing and drinking in the 15th century.
When the Puritans took control of government in the 1640s, they made concerted efforts to abolish Christmas and to outlaw its traditional customs. It was in this context that Royalist pamphleteers linked the Christmas traditions with the cause of King and Church. In the hands of Royalist pamphlet writers, Old Father Christmas served as the symbol and spokesman of ‘the good old days’ of feasting and cheer. Following the Restoration in 1660, Father Christmas’s profile declined and his visibility waned.
Until Victorian times, Father Christmas was concerned with adult feasting and merry-making. He had no particular connection with children, nor with the giving of presents, nocturnal visits, stockings, chimneys or reindeer. But as later Victorian Christmases developed into child-centric family festivals, Father Christmas became a bringer of gifts.
The popular American myth of Santa Claus arrived in England in the 1850s and Father Christmas started to take on Santa’s attributes. By the 1880s, the new customs had become established. Any residual distinctions between Father Christmas and Santa Claus largely faded away in the early 20th century.
Father Christmas; Image by Dorothe alias Darkmoon Art from Pixabay (A) | Oberholster Venita alias ArtsyBee from Pixabay (B)
Grandpa Frost, Russia
Ded Moroz is a figure similar to Father Christmas and Santa Claus, but his roots are embedded in Slavic mythology. The tradition of Ded Moroz spread in East Slavic countries in the former Soviet republics. It is such an important part of Russian culture that the atheistic Communist authorities could not ban Ded Moroz despite their attempts to do so at the beginning of the Soviet era. On the contrary, he was celebrated in the Soviet Union, as well.
The literal translation of Ded Moroz is “Grandpa Frost”. He wears a heel-length fur coat (ice blue or dark red), a semi-round fur hat, and valenki (felt boots) on his feet. He has a long white beard. He walks with a long magic stick and often rides a troika (a Russian sleigh pulled by a team of three horses abreast).
Grandpa Frost is accompanied by Snow Maiden, his granddaughter and helper, who wears a long silver-blue robe and a furry cap or a snowflake crown. She is a unique attribute of Ded Moroz, since corresponding characters in other cultures do not have a young female companion.
Joulupukki, the Finnish Santa
Santa is a man of many names, and many nations claim him as their own. But one country may be a step closer to declaring itself Santa’s official home, namely Finland. More specifically, the City of Rovaniemi in Lapland announced itself Santa’s official home town after building a Santa Claus Village on its outskirts. Finland’s flag carrier, Finnair, advertises itself as Santa’s official airline since 1983. If you fly Finnair in midwinter, you’ll see his face next to the cabin entrance.
Finns strictly reject the claims that Santa would live in the North Pole or even at Santa Claus Village on the Arctic Circle. They regard the latter as a mere tourist trap to cheat on naively gullible foreign tourists. If you ask Finns where Santa comes from, they will say Korvatunturi, a gently sloping low mountain[i] in Eastern Lapland, next to the border between Finland and Russia. In Finnish, the name Korvatunturi means “Ear Fell”, referring to the mountain’s distinctive ear-shaped profile. Korvatunturi is the place where Santa can hear everything.
The Finnish name of this personified Christmas character is Joulupukki. The word literally means “Christmas goat” or “Yule goat” in Finnish. Its background can be explained by pagan traditions, just like in the other countries reported above. Goats were considered a fertility symbol among the pagan folk. Until the Middle Ages, Finns celebrated Yule, a pagan midwinter festival marked by an elaborate feast.
On Knut’s Day (January 13), the day marking the end of the holiday season, a figure called Nuuttipukki, “Knut’s Goat”, went from door to door to demand gifts and scrounge for leftover food. Knut’s Goats were men dressed in thick fur coats turned inside out, wearing birch bark masks and a pair of horns on their heads. They were frightening figures as they represented evil spirits. If they didn’t get what they wanted, they made loud noises to scare children.
When the charitable Saint Nicholas became known in Finland during the 1800s, his image blended with the pre-existing tradition of the masked Nuuttipukki. As a result of this coalescence, Joulupukki, the new mixture of the two, came into being. At the same time, he went from naughty to nice and jolly. Joulupukki handed out gifts instead of demanding them.
Unlike Santa Claus who climbs down the chimney, Joulupukki knocks on the door on Christmas Eve (December 24) and asks politely: “Are there any well-behaved children here?” Good kids can expect to get presents, whereas naughty kids were threatened to receive a bucket of whips in the past. Children are often requested to sing a few Christmas carols before Joulupukki will hand out their presents. Gift packages are opened after the dinner approximately between 7 and 10 pm.
Although the present-day Joulupukki bears more and more resemblance to American Santa Claus, differences still exist. Some of them were already mentioned in the preceding text, but let’s summarize all of them here:
- Joulupukki’s clothing is nowadays red but it is not identical to that of Santa Claus. It looks more traditional, resembling a peasant’s folk costume with Nordic elements. The loose-fitting coat is long. Its shade of red is more discreet than the bright red of Coca Cola Santa. In the old postcards, Joulupukki may also wear a gray fur coat. In addition to his warm clothes, he carries a long walking stick, because he is very old.
- Joulupukki is not necessarily that porky and fat.
- Joulupukki does not say: “Ho, ho, ho!” He does not hold a bell in hand.
- Joulupukki has a wife known as Joulumuori, also called the Old Lady Christmas.
- Joulupukki is pulled by reindeers on a sled. Joulupukki’s reindeers do not fly in the sky.
- Joulupukki does not climb down the chimney. If he cannot pay a face-to-face visit, he or his small helpers, elves, will leave presents under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.
- Joulupukki lives in Korvatunturi, “Ear Fell”, in Finnish Lapland. After delivering his gifts, Joulupukki returns to Korvatunturi.
[i] In Finland, this is called a “fell”: a low mountain or a high hill, the top of which is above the tree line, growing alpine tundra. Fells are round inselbergs rising from the otherwise flat surroundings. In Finnish Lapland, they form vestiges of the Karelides mountains, formed two billion years ago.
[References: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20171221-does-santa-claus-come-from-finland | http://www.indobase.com/holidays/christmas/characters/joulupukki.html | https://inktank.fi/how-joulupukki-the-finnish-santa-went-from-naughty-to-nice/ | http://www.dlc.fi/~marian1/gourmet/xmas_3.htm]
Santa Claus is a reincarnation of Odin! Hold your horses, this one-sided simplification is naturally a lighthearted exaggeration and should not be taken literally. However, it contains a certain seed of truth, which makes sense.
Santa Claus and his European equivalents incorporate a myriad of crisscrossing influences from separate mythologies that have coalesced as a result of long-term intercultural exchange. The present creature is a cultural blend, embracing both vertical and horizontal dimensions. When consecutive historic stages and unrelated parallel traditions met and came into the interplay, their mixture always led to a new synthesis. There is no single original Santa Claus who could claim an exclusive monopoly for the right personification of the Christmas figure.
Hence, Finns should not disapprove Coca Cola Santa due to its fabricated image. The irony lies in the descent of the painter who created the modern image of Santa Claus in the 1920s. Haddon Sundblom (1899–1976) was an American artist of Finnish and Swedish descent. Sundblom was born in Muskegon, Michigan to a Swedish-speaking family. His father came from the village of Sonnboda in Föglö, Åland Islands, then part of the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, now Finland. Sundblom is best remembered for his Santa Claus advertisement for the Coca Cola Company. [Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haddon_Sundblom]
Finns have been equally eager to commercialize Joulupukki for the purposes of country promotion in attracting tourists to Lapland (e.g. Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi). Finnair and the Coca Cola Company share identical branding strategies as regards Santa. Hence, it is not just the “evil” American corporations that are exploiting the world cultural heritage if one views the issue from a strait-laced puritan standpoint. The same universal rules of the game apply everywhere.
Holiday sales constitute a substantial share of the annual revenue in many businesses. Santa is the regular face of numerous marketing campaigns along with top models. He serves as a primus motor (principal player) in promoting sales in excessive amounts. Buying presents as well as various Christmas related goods (e.g. decorations, seasonal flowers, special food ingredients and clothes) seems to form the essence of the holiday. Trendy gifts are the most important prerequisite for a successful celebration. What should we think about the commercialized holiday that is based on unsustainable consumption to a great extent?
When I was a young child, we were taught at home and preschool the following lesson: If somebody asks you what the purpose of Christmas is, and you answer that Christmas stands for Joulupukki and presents, you will embarrass yourself since you sound like a fool. Today, it appears to be a normal, legitimate reply, which can be justified by empirical observations.
How is it possible that global billion dollar businesses are revolving around a fairy tale character? An adult is not supposed to believe in the existence of Santa Claus. Santa saga is targeting small children who are less than seven years old. Should we conclude that an average consumer is at the level of a four-year-old child? Would it make any difference if we celebrated Odin for a change?
There are even further figures connected with the midwinter holiday season in different countries. Some of them have clearly Christian origins; some of them are mythological creatures of Nordic (or other) folklore. Three illustrative examples are introduced here.
- Nisse, also called Tomte, is one of the most familiar creatures of Scandinavian folklore, and he has appeared in many works of Scandinavian literature. In the 1840s, the Nisse, a house elf living on a farm, became the bearer of Christmas presents in Scandinavia and was then called Julenisse. In Finland, Julenisse they is lurking behind windows in December to watch if children are behaving themselves. A Nisse is described as a short man (under four feet tall), having a long white beard and wearing a conical or knit cap in gray or red. He often has an appearance somewhat similar to that of a garden gnome. [References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nisse_(folklore) | https://www.fjorn.com/whatispixie.html]
- Saint Lucy’s Day is a Christian feast taking place on December 13. While the Feast of Saint Lucy coincided with the shortest day of the year prior to calendar reforms, it is widely celebrated as a festival of light. Falling within the Advent season, it is viewed as a precursor of Christmastide, pointing to the arrival of the Light of Christ on Christmas Day. Saint Lucy’s Day is celebrated most widely in Italy, Scandinavia and Swedish-speaking regions of Finland, with each emphasizing a different aspect of her story. In Scandinavia, where Lucy is called Santa or Sankta Lucia, she is represented as a young lady in a white dress symbolizing a baptismal robe and a red sash symbolizing the blood of her martyrdom, with a crown or wreath of candles on her head. [Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Lucy%27s_Day]
In Finland, a new symbol of light is crowned at Helsinki Cathedral as well as in many small parishes in Swedish-speaking regions every year on December 13. In Helsinki, ten finalists are selected by a jury; the winner is decided by popular vote among parishioners. After the crowning ceremony, Lucia parades with her runner-ups through the city center as tens of thousands of bundled-up onlookers cheer and wave. For many weeks after December 13, Lucia continues to spread her hope and cheer, visiting hospitals, orphanages, daycare centers and nursing homes at the darkest time of the year. [Reference: https://finland.fi/christmas/the-chosen-one/]
- In Spain, the Three Kings or Wise Men or Magi perform the same role as Santa Claus at Christmas. In the evening of January 5, children are supposed to leave a cleaned pair of shoes outside their doors for the nocturnal visitors to fill them with gifts. A survey by the Spanish toymaker’s association showed in 2015 that the Three Kings are far more popular than Papa Noel amongst Spanish children. On January 5–6 every year, Spanish towns and cities are given over to colorful parades of Dia de los Reyes, “the Kings’ Day” – a celebration of the arrival of the Three Wise men in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth. Mechanized floats bearing effigies of Melchior (Arabia), Caspar (the Orient) and Balthazar (Africa) – or real-life versions of the Wise Men played by members of the local council – trundle down major streets. They are followed and surrounded by various other brightly-costumed participants in long processions. As they pass, they throw out handfuls of sweets that rain down on the spectators gathered to watch their grand entry into the town.