Origins of Santa Claus
This is Lee Carter speaking for Atheists United. Our organization is chartered by the
state of California as an educational institution, one purpose of which is to research
and disseminate information about religious mythology and superstition. The holiday
season, in which we're now engaged, provides a veritable gold mine of data for
mythologists; and for the last two weeks I've been discussing how it all came about.
Last week I talked about the true origins of the Christian religion, and the week before
that I showed how Christmas originated as a celebration of the winter solstice. Today, I
thought you'd find it interesting to know how some of our present customs originated.
"Santa Claus" is a contraction of "St. Nicholas," who was archbishop of the seaport of
Myra, in Asia Minor, during the time of the Nicene Council. He died on December 6th,
326 CE. Since he was bishop of a seaport, he became the patron saint of sailors –
and therefore of all travelers – most of whom were merchants. Later, he was adopted
as the favorite saint of the Russian Orthodox Church and, eventually, of fishermen as
far away as Lapland and the Arctic Ocean.
Legend says that he was the son of wealthy parents who had left him a fortune. But his
Christian beliefs dictated that he should give it all to the needy. His most famous story
is about a poor father who had three daughters. But he had no dowry for them, and was
going to have to sell them into slavery. St. Nicholas heard of the plight, and one night he
tossed a bag of gold into the window of the first daughter. With this money she was
able to buy a husband. But nobody knew where the money came from. The next night
he did the same thing for the second daughter. On the third night, the father hid in the
bushes to see who was leaving the gifts. Surely enough, St. Nicholas tossed the last of
the bags in the window, and when the father tried to thank him, he made the father
promise never to tell where the money came from. But, of course, he did.
St. Nicholas was frequently depicted as carrying these three bags of gold. And as the
patron saint of merchants, this symbol of three golden spheres eventually became the
symbol of a pawnbroker – a merchant who would give you assistance and protection
when you needed help.
Another famous story tells of a man who sent his two sons to get the bishop's blessing.
But while they were sleeping in a hotel, the innkeeper crept into their room, killed them
and stole their money. God had communicated these events to the bishop in a vision.
So the saint resurrected the two boys, whereupon the innkeeper confessed his sin and
In the middle ages, the Church had complete control over the government, and all
drama was forbidden, except for three types of plays:
1) Miracle plays – about the lives of the saints and their miracles,
2) Mystery plays – acting out stories from the Bible and the "mysterious ways of God."
3) Morality plays – contemporary stories illustrating some principle of Christian doctrine.
Children loved to perform miracle plays about their favorite – St. Nicholas. They'd
march through the streets in a parade, led by St. Nicholas on his horse, wearing his red
bishop's robes and his miter, as he dispensed coins, candy, and trinkets to children in
the crowds. This pageant still exists in Austria. But in America, the bishop's red robes
have been redesigned into a kind of pants-suit, the miter has been replaced by an
alpine stocking-cap, and we call it the Santa Claus Parade.
In northern Europe there was a god named Odin, Woden, or Wotan. He was a warrior
god at first, but later became a god of wisdom, and the creator of man. In order to learn
the secrets of the universe, Odin had to suffer, die, and be resurrected. So he had
himself crucified on a tree, where he hung for nine days. At the end of that time he had
someone finish him off by sticking a spear in his side. After this sacrificial death, he
was then resurrected. And he came back from the Great Beyond with the runic
alphabet and the ability to read and write -- which he passed on to humankind.
Odin wore a large floppy hat, and rode a white horse. He was accompanied by a band
of robbers, demons and cut-throats. During a thunderstorm you can still hear them
Odin and his army arrive every year around the end of October in what is called the
"Raging Rout." If November arrives during good weather, the next year will be a good
one. But if the weather is "raging" the year will be bad. During the raging rout the army
of Odin plays many dirty tricks – and this is one origin of our Halloween tradition of
December 6th commemorated the death of St. Nicholas. And on that day, the Norse
goddess, Perchta, inspected all the households to see that everything was ship-shape
for the long winter. The housewives cleaned their houses and set a meal for Perchta. If
she approved, it would bring good luck for the year. But if the wife failed inspection it
brought bad luck. Odin always accompanied Perchta on these tours of inspection. And
since Odin arrived on St. Nicholas' Day, he gradually became identified with St.
In northern Europe, then, St. Nicholas wears a broad-brimmed hat and rides a white
horse. He arrives on the evening of December 6th. He's accompanied by the Christ
child, St. Peter and one small angel. When he enters the house, he gives all the
children an examination. If they've been good, they're rewarded with gifts; if not, they
get a bundle of switches.
In Holland, children still put their shoes outside the door on December 6th, stuffed with
hay for St. Nicholas' horse. If they've been good, the horse eats the hay and St.
Nicholas fills their shoes with presents.
In the Scandinavian countries children believe that elves and gnomes leave the gifts.
And these are distributed on December 13th, the feast day of St. Luchia. She was a
Sicilian maiden who was noted for her kindness to the poor. So in the morning, a girl
dresses in a white gown and wears a crown of candles. She's called "Lucia Bride."
She wakes each member of the family by singing them a carol and presenting a gift.
Our American version of Santa Claus dates back to 1822. Dr. Clement Moore was a
professor at a theological seminary in New York. He'd heard stories about the visits
from St. Nicholas as practiced in northern Europe. These stories had been told to him
by a Dutch friend, who was chubby and jolly, had a white beard and smoked a long,
Dutch pipe. Inspired by his friend and his stories of Nordic elves and flying reindeer,
Dr. Moore wrote a poem, as a Christmas present for his children. It was called "A Visit
From St. Nicholas." A friend got his permission to publish it in an upstate New York
newspaper. It was then picked up by other publications and widely circulated. In 1863,
Thomas Nast, a famous political cartoonist, drew an illustration for the poem in
Harper's Illustrated Weekly. Dr. Moore had described him as "dressed all in fur from
his head to his foot. But Nast remembered that a bishop was supposed to be dressed
in red. So he drew him in a red suit that was only trimmed in fur.
Epiphany, January 6th, is still the most important festival day in some countries. If you
remember from a previous program, that was originally one of the feast days for the
Egyptian earth mother, Isis. On that day, in Greece, the bishop tosses a cross in the
harbor, which boys dive for. Whoever retrieves it is assured of good luck throughout the
In Spain, children put their shoes outside, stuffed with hay and carrots for the camels of
the three kings on their way to Bethlehem. In the morning, the fodder would be gone
and they'd find gifts in their shoes.
In Italy, children put out their shoes on Epiphany Eve, hoping that "Befana" their female
Santa Claus will leave presents.
Mexican children also receive their presents on Epiphany.
In France, children receive gifts on Christmas day. But adults exchange presents on
In Germany, when a baby was born, it was customary to give any older children a
present to keep them from being jealous of the attention paid to the new baby. This
present was called a "child's foot." The Christ child was considered to be a new baby
brother to all children – so all children received presents. A figure called "Father
Christmas" sometimes distributed these gifts. Or sometimes it was a child dressed as
an angel, and representing the Christ child.
The Soviet Union avoids endorsing anything related to Christianity. So January 1st is
their day for feasting, family reunions, and gifts from "Grandfather Frost."
December 26th is St. Stephen's Day, and on this day, in England, the village priest
would open the "poor box" of the church and distribute money to the needy. This was
called "Boxing Day." And it gradually became customary to give Christmas boxes to
servants, tradesmen, etc.
Decorating houses with evergreens was universal throughout the world – for obvious
reasons. During the apparent death and resurrection of the sun, evergreens are a
symbol of eternal life.
In northern Europe, it was thought that evergreens were a potent talisman for warding
off the witches and demons of the raging rout. So wreaths and boughs of evergreen
were placed everywhere. Even the smoke from burning evergreens chases away evil
spirits. So, farmers would carry a brazier of smoking branches around the house,
making sure that all his livestock were blessed with holy smoke.
In addition to greenery, incense and lights, another good method of scaring away evil
spirits was with noise – shouts, horns, bells, gunfire, and eventually – firecrackers. This
was particularly important on New Year's to be sure the new year started out with good
Certain evergreens, like holly and mistletoe, were considered to have all sorts of
magical properties, and many legends are connected with them. The wreath of holly
was supposed to represent the crown of thorns worn by Christ – and the red berries
represented the drops of blood.
According to Norse legend, the son of Odin and Frigga was named Balder. He was the
god of sunshine and light. He'd had a premonition of death, so his mother asked every
element of nature to promise not to harm him. But she forgot the mistletoe. The evil god
Loki made an arrow and tipped it with mistletoe then gave it to Hodar, the blind god of
winter, who accidentally shot Balder. Immediately, the sun ceased to shine, and all the
gods tried to revive him. After three days, he was resurrected from the dead and the
sun shone once again. Frigga's tears of happiness became mistletoe berries, and she
kissed each person who walked under it. She decreed that the mistletoe would never
again harm anyone, and that anyone who walked under it should get a kiss.
The druids took mistletoe even more seriously. There was an elaborate ritual for
gathering it, which sometimes included human sacrifice. They also considered it to
have magical properties, and it was worn as a good luck charm and placed over
doorways to ward off evil spirits. Again, those who entered through the doorway
received a kiss as a seal of friendship.
In some European countries, families made a pyramid shaped framework and covered
that with various types of greenery and decorations, then placed their presents under
The Christmas tree itself has no definite origin. Trees have always been decorated and
venerated from prehistoric times. Throughout the ancient world it was noticed that
wherever a sacrificial victim had been buried, trees and shrubbery flourished. So
where sacrificial blood was spilled, sacred groves grew. It was felt that these sacred
trees contained the spirits of the victims. So when someone wanted a favor from the
gods, they offered presents to the tree.
In the Mediterranean area, the Cybelene cultists had a procession through the city
during which they carried the sacred pine tree on which the god Attis had been
crucified. This tree was then taken to the Cybelene temple where it was decorated.
Attis was another sun god, who had been born of a virgin, crucified, and then
resurrected each spring.
During the Saturnalia, Romans trimmed trees with trinkets and small masks of
Bacchus, also known as Jesus Dionysus. Sometimes they placed twelve candles on a
tree, representing signs of the zodiac, with an image of the sun god at the top. The
Roman poet, Virgil once wrote a description of how these trees were decorated and
hung with toys.
The Druids and Vikings also decorated trees by hanging gilded apples and animal-
shaped cookies on it in honor of Odin and his son Balder.
During the middle-ages, December 24th was called Adam and Eve day, and the "tree
of life" was carried through the town, decorated with apples.
Egyptians brought their date-palms indoors to be decorated on the solstice.
Most likely, the Christmas tree was simply a centerpiece for other greenery that was
brought into the house. And in some parts of Europe it is still hung upside down from
The earliest historical record of a Christmas tree, as such, is from a forestry law in
1516 which limited the cutting of Christmas trees to one per family – no more than eight
feet tall. And in a travel book, written in 1605, the author describes a Christmas in
Strasbourg, Germany, in which the inhabitants set up fir trees in their homes, on which
they hung decorations and presents.
Well, those are some of the main customs associated with the holiday season in
America. And next week I'll conclude this series with a few of the more obscure
customs and the surprising mythologies and superstitions on which they're based.
If you'd like to be part of a group of intelligent Americans who are dedicated to
protecting our constitutional rights, why not give us a call. We have many activities
scheduled throughout each month, and the public is invited to our open meetings. Until
next week, this is Lee Carter for Atheists United – the Rational Minority.