The American figures of Santa Claus and his elves that have become the dominant Christmas holiday icons around the world are two-dimensional renderings of ancient pagan, religious, and popular culture legends and myths.
The figure of Santa Claus as the jolly bearded old man in a red suit bordered with red fur is perhaps the most beloved cultural icon in the United States. Equally beloved are his crew of cute elves with their pointy Spock ears. The Santa Claus that appears in the malls every Christmas holiday season (with natural or prosthetic big belly) may seem old-fashioned, but this American version is actually quite young compared to the myths and legends from many other countries. And just as Disney glossed over the darker elements in ancient fairy tales like “Snow White” or “The Little Mermaid,” the American Santa Claus and his elves are pale, pleasant, one-dimensional shadows of their ancient ancestors.
Pagan Origins of Santa Claus
Odin: The Norse god Odin was associated with magic, poetry, war, hunting and death. During Yule, a midwinter holiday celebrated in the last weeks of December, Odin led a hunting party across the sky. During this time, prudent people would stay out of his sight by staying indoors. Odin rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, who could fly through the air. He was also assisted by two black ravens that sat on each shoulder.
Father Christmas: In medieval Britain, Father Christmas was often depicted wearing a green cloak and a wreath of green holly on his head, which link him to the pagan Green Man legends. Father Christmas, also known as the Lord of Misrule, presided over midwinter festivities, involving feasting and drinking, that merged with the Christian observation of Christ’s birth. Ironically, Puritan attempts to ban these celebrations made “old” Father Christmas more popular. During the 19th century, the hedonistic Lord of Misrule started wearing red, delivering presents to children, and answering to the name Santa Claus.
Joulupukki: In Finland, the pagan Yule Goat would knock on doors at midwinter and demand to be given food and gifts. Dressed in goat skins with horns, Joulupukki was a frightening figure. who was assisted by dwarves, known as the Joulutonttu. Giving these evil spirits gifts was a way to protect your household against bad luck in the coming year.
Historical Origins of Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas: The historical Nicholas, who was Bishop of Myra (now part of Turkey) in the 4th century A.D., was renowned for his generosity and gift-giving. For instance, he once saved three pious unmarried sisters from being sold into prostitution when he threw three bags of gold coins down the chimney of their house, providing them each with a dowry. He is a patron saint of children, as well as sailors, bakers, pawn brokers, Russia, and the city of Amsterdam. Many European countries celebrate his name day, which is December 6th, by leaving small gifts (candy or cookies) for children the night before.
Origins of Santa Claus and His Elves in Popular Culture
In many parts of Europe, celebrations of St. Nicholas Day and Christmas include elements of ancient pre-Christian myths and legends, and these have been incorporated in the globally recognized figures of the American Santa Claus and his elves, as well. Curiously, many of these European traditions pair the gentle, generous religious saint with frightening, demonic creatures who assist him on his rounds.
Sinter Klaas and Zwarte Piet: According to the Dutch legend, St. Nicholas, or Sinter Klaas, the Bishop, travels to Holland from Spain (where he now resides) by boat on the eve of his name day and then visits homes riding a white horse. He wears a tall red mitre, or hat, and red cape, is accompanied by Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. In some legends, this figure is a slave who was owned by St. Nicholas. Alternatively, he is a slave who was freed by St. Nicholas and became his devoted helper out of gratitude. While Sinter Klaas rides around leaving candy for “good” children, Zwarte Piet’s job is to capture and beat “bad” children. Very bad children are put in his bag and carried back to Spain to work as slaves.
Modern Dutch Depictions of Zwarte Piet
While Black Pete was one of the names traditionally used to refer to the Devil, this character was depicted as African in a popular children’s book published in the Netherlands in 1845, and has been depicted this way ever since. In current Dutch Sinterklaas festivities, some people dress up in St. Nicholas bishop’s robes, while others—the Zwarte Pieten—wear black face and Afro-wigs and colorful medieval costumes; they sometimes speak in broken Dutch. Some Dutch consider this tradition to be racist; others see nothing offensive. There has been some attempt to cast Zwarte Piet as a chimney sweep, but as many have pointed out, this profession has no connection to the kinky hair, exaggerated large red lips, foreign accents, or fancy clothes that have come to represent this character.
Krampus: In Austria and Southern Germany, the Krampus is a devil-like figure with horns and a long red tongue who would go around beating children if St. Nicholas didn’t have him securely fastened with chains. A similar figure appears in some eastern European legends.
Knecht Ruprecht: In Germany, Knecht Ruprecht, or Farmhand Rupert, has a sooty face and carries a bag of ashes. Ruprecht is an old nick-name for the Devil. This figure assists St. Nicholas by going down chimneys, leaving treats for good children and beating naughty ones. There are many variants of this name in different parts of Germany and Alsace.
Père Fouettard: In France, Père Fouettard, or the Whipping Father, dispenses corporal punishment to some children while St. Nicholas gives treats to the deserving ones. This character is based on a medieval legend of a butcher who kidnaps and robs three wealthy boys before brutally murdering them. As punishment for his ghastly crime, he must serve St. Nicholas.
Schmutzli: In Switzerland, the Schmutzli is a hooded figure with a dark face and red eyes carrying a birch twig broom that he uses to beat bad children. St. Nicholas, meanwhile, hands out goodies to the good kids. In older stories, the Schmutzli also captured children, put them in his bag, and took them into the woods where he ate them.
Sants's Elves: In the American Christmas legend, Santa Claus also has assistants—an unspecified number of elves who make the toys that he delivers to children around the world. They are generally depicted as small with pointy ears. In contrast to his predecessors, Santa Claus rides alone on Christmas Eve, leaving the elves behind at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus.
Elves were not always so cute and subservient. Different European legends describe elves as semi-immortal beings, often incredibly beautiful. While they could occasionally be helpful to humans, they could also be annoying, vengeful, or dangerous. Beautiful female elves, for instance, were notorious for seducing human men and wearing them out with dancing (or other activities) until they died. Some traditions made a distinction between light and dark elves.
Just as the older versions of St. Nick—the generous bishop who left candy in your shoe while his dark-complexioned side-kick snuck around looking for juvenile delinquents to beat up and kidnap—have had the rough edges smoothed away in the current incarnation of Santa Claus, so, too, his pointy-earred helpers have lost their terrifying aspects.
Even those remarkable reindeer have been domesticated and given silly names. Ho-ho-hum.