The Fat Man certainly has enough aliases to fill up a rap sheet worthy of a guy who’s spent hundreds of years climbing down chimneys in to other people’s houses. There’s Santa Claus, Old St Nick, Pere Noel, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, Papai Noel, Der Weihnachtsmann and St. Nicolas to name a few.
So who was this Saint Nicolas and how did he get those Reindeer to fly?? The original Saint Nicolas was probably more familiar with sheep than he was with Reindeer. He was born in a city called Myra Lycia, which was then Greece and is now Turkey. Orphaned at a young age he went on to become a priest well known for his acts of charity, two legends prevail:
Once upon a time there were three young girls who were so poor their father could not afford a dowry, dooming them to lives as medieval singletons, as this was way before in advent of Cosmos, self-help books and Haagen Daz, so it was quite a dismal future. St Nicolas, wishing to help the girls without embarrassing their father by offering him a handout, slipped by in the dead of night and tossed 3 gold coins down the chimney, the coins landed in the stockings the ladies had hung to dry by the fire and a modern tradition was born.
During a widespread famine, three little boys were lured into a butcher shop by an evil butcher who chopped them up and made them into pies, St Nicolas happened to be in the neighborhood, heard about this and magically brought the boys back to life and returned them to their families…thus he became the patron saint of children.
The Santa Claus that we know and love first began in Dutch countries as Sinterklaas, a derivation of St Nicolas, a bearded man who kept track of children’s naughtiness, niceness etc in a big book. Those children who were not so naughty got presents and treats and those who were very naughty would get thrown in a sack and drowned by one of Santa’s associates. Yes, the rolly polly jelly bellied St Nick has henchman that do his dirty work, and it’s not just handing out lumps of coal (or onions depending on where you’re from). Sweet little toy making Elves these guys are not.
In Dutch countries SC’s sidekick is known as Schwartz Piet, a mischievous chimney sweep who kidnaps bad children, in France Pere Foettard doles out coal with a side of whuppass in the form of a whip to bad boys and girls.
In parts of Germany Krampus comes to town the first week of December. Krampus aka The Claw is a foul-smelling goat headed demon who runs through the streets with chains seeking out poorly behaved children to beat or eat depending on how he’s feeling that day.
Krampusnacht is still celebrated in Bavaria, hordes of intoxicated young men dressed as ghoulish evil demons drunkenly run through the Christmas Markets scaring the beejesus out of children and hopefully getting them to behave themselves until Christmas. In other parts of Germany he is known as Knecht Ruprecht or Aschenklas a raggedy man with a bell and a stick. He rings the bell announcing his arrival and readiness to whip children (literally) into shape.
Bellsnickel another raggedy bearded man who visits the The Pennsylvania Dutch around Christmas time does double duty, scaring the kiddies into behaving and handing out treats to the nice ones who finished their chores and didn’t hit their sister.
The English Custom of Mumming and the Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickel came together to create the practice of belsnickeling in parts of the US. Belsnickelers with bells and whips dress up in rags and overcoats and hide their faces with masks or soot . They put on shows for families in return for food & drink, often leaving sweets for the children who dared face their whips.
In Latvia they wear elaborate woven masks, hiding their faces and disguising their voices, neighbors try to figure out who is who, and if your identity is discovered you are unmasked. (one has to wonder what other kind of mischief they might have gotten into…hmmm)
Variations of Mumming, which derives from the Greek word for mask, Mommo, take place all over the world from Russia to Wales to New South Wales. During this widespread winter tradition masked individuals sing, dance and play tricks, creating levity and fun in the longest darkest nights of all winter nights.
So where’d the reindeer come from? Well, not everyone’s Santa rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer, Papa Xmas has been known to ride a donkey, a goat, a horse, and sometimes he just walks .
The Modern American Santa Claus, (this moniker was first used in the US in 1773), made an appearance in Washington Irving’s History of New York in 1809. His reindeer finally arrived in 1821 in an anonymous book entitled A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve III and in 1823 a man named Clement Clarke Moore penned the well-known poem The Night Before Christmas..and our Modern Santa est Arrive..replete with red nose, Ho Ho Hos and eight tiny Reindeer.
And Rudolph, where was he? Are there any century old traditions of flying reindeer with bright red noses leading Krampus through the Black Forest??? No, not really in fact Rudolph is the mind child of an advertising executive from the retailer Montgomery Ward. Each year Montgomery Ward would buy and give away a coloring book to children for the Holidays, and in 1939 they decided it would be better (cheaper) to create their own and assigned Robert May to the task….he created a red-nosed reindeer, with a story based partially on the Ugly Duckling and named him
Rollo, Reginald, RUDOLPH!!!. Montgomery Ward distributed 2.5 million copies of the coloring book in the first year! Ten years later May’s brother in law Juan Ramirez aka Johnny Marks adapted the story to a song, Gene Autry sang it and there we have it, the last piece of the puzzle.
What about Chanukah Harry…where does he fit in?
Well quite frankly he doesn’t,
Chanukkah Hanukkah Hanuka Chanukah Harry is the creation of Saturday Night Live and has nothing to do with Chanukah, the hero of Chanukah is Judah Macabee, a rebel and a great warrior. Chanukah is known as the Festival of Lights, and commemorates a great miracle. This mirrors many of the world’s winter Holiday traditions, many of which have been around for as long as there has been winter.Gifts are given and received, special food is eaten and games are played. .
There are several countries that don’t even have a Santa Claus. In parts of Italy La Belfana, a witch on a broomstick is the one who knows who’s naughty & who’s nice. Why a witch?
The Vatican could not prove the existence of Santa Claus, but apparently they could prove that witches on broomsticks existed and so they remembered La Belfana, a wandering witch who came upon the magi on their way to find the baby Jesus, she could not accompany them on their journey because she had chores to do, and though she changed her mind later, she could not find the manager. So now she keeps looking for the baby, leaving candies and treats in the shoes of good bambinos and bambinas, and garlic for the naughty ones.
In Catalonia it is not Father Christmas who brings presents but Tio De Netal or Cagatios, a Log, who has a rather unorthodox delivery system, click here to find out more.
So, yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He has many faces around the world not all of them Jolly, in fact some downright creepy but regardless his message rings as clear as sleigh bells ,
you better not pout you better not cry or Santa’s gonna whip you with chains and throw you in a sack,
Faith, Hope and Charity are what this Holiday season is all about, no matter if you are hiding from Krampus, setting out sugar cubes in your shoes for Santa’s donkey, beating a log with a stick, following Santa via NORAD or lighting a menorah.
All around the world this is a season of miracles, of lights in the darkness, and a time to reach out and embrace family, friends and community.
Wishing all a Peaceful Happy Holiday Season!