The Origins of Santa Claus

By I. M. Knosp

The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, in the hopes of the Wild Hunt soon to be there, led by a man neither god nor beast, in his honor the people doth feast.

His Name…. is Santa Claus.

One of the most well known figures of myth around the world, his image is one of the most prolific of any spirit or deity. Velvet coat of crimson red, trimmed in snow white fur, dark boots, large arms and round belly like a bowl full of jelly. His eyes piercing and cheeks rosy, behind him a sack of toys hangs across his broad powerful back. Ash sprinkled across his face staining it rich and black, walking through the flame of the hearth to place gifts beneath the tree and in the stockings of good little boys and girls, while the naughty receive only coal. His sleigh is pulled by nine reindeer, powerfully built and enchanted to fly across the sky with the magic of Christmas. His beloved wife Mrs. Claus doting on her beloved husband. A chest of weapons, an ax at the ready, a tree over his back and a shimmering light emanating from his personage. Ancient eldritch traditions hang from him as naturally as hair or skin. He appears in hand carved idols, small offerings to ancestral spirits, on products and on sacrifices, in film and literature. Yet… who is he? Where did he come from? This Jolly Old Elf. This Bearded Yuletide Wildman. This Nighttime rider. This Old Saint Nick!

He was born in the Yuletide.

A time of wandering ghosts and restless spirits, of dying suns, and newborn kings. The evergreens seem to radiate some old magic, while the trees, leafless waver in the breeze. A face seems to look at you from every angle. The trees beside the homes are strewn in lights and ornaments, toys and sweets… and blood.

You can hear a hunting call on the wind, the snow seems to freeze all in its path while those lucky enough to have hunkered down snuggle up for the long sleep but first they feast, turkey legs are torn apart by ravenous teeth, sweets made to look like man are chomped by the children at the fire who sneak a treat and a peek, to try to see the spirit of the season. It is a ghostly time, yet it is not a time of fear. While the earth begins to sleep and everything is barren and cold, the very life falling from your fingers in Jack Frost’s Icy Grip. Yet there is warmth in Cocoa and Cider, Wassail and Hearth Flame. The offerings are made in cookies and milk, whiskey and cigars, feasts and tiny treats. Yet the Center of these festivities, a figure who has become the epicenter from which spawns every modern legend of the season is a relative new comer to this ancient rite in the night of the year.

Santa Claus himself is a relatively young figure in the Yuletide Mythos, one begins to wonder if his rosy cheeks are from his youth and not simply flushed from the cold. There were seeds however, seeds that took root and eventually culminated in the figure known today by many names, this guardian of the Yuletides origins are not as cut and dry as they may seem at a cursory glance. For the God of Christmas continues a wide array of traditions reaching back to pre-history and if one follows any singular road they will fail to find the sheer breadth that is our Jolly Old Elf, so we must discuss the seeds of which he sprouted starting with the least well known. Yet perhaps the most important. A very… Hairy… Elf… Belsnickel.


It is easy to overlook Belsnickel in the modern day, more than likely if someone has heard of him it is from an American Sit-Com rather than from the Wild Man Mumming tradition that spawned him. Yet turn back the clock a century or two before the modern day and we find not only an important figure, but an influential almost unavoidable figure. Cavorting, ringing and screaming up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Not confined to Pennsylvania and its German immigrants the tradition exploded and gave the country Belsnickeling, a mumming tradition just as varied as those of any European country. While the common image of Belsnickel of a darkened face, antlers strapped to his head, long dark beard, covered in fur with a birch pole and bag of chestnuts was of course prominent; other forms of costumes from comedic cross-dressers to intricately masked revelers abounded. Like any good Yuletide Mumming custom the participants grew louder and more widespread their intoxicated selves ringing bells, shaking chains and whipping people with birch twigs dancing door to door for sweets and treats. That was until they ran afoul of the elites of the Eastern Cities, who were all too happy to end it.

Belsnickel had become a bit too large, the country was supposed to be Christian of course and a hairy wild man and his retinue was not what the country was supposed to be, at least in their eyes. Though the worst of it, was the noise. The loud revelry up and down the entire coast had gotten annoying, the noise was bad enough but the look of the disheveled filthy costumes only added to it. Here they found an unlikely ally, the darkened face that had symbolized the fertilility aspects of Belsnickel and many others like him for millennia was the avenue through which they could remove the issue of Belsnickel. The NAACP began an outcry over the Belsnickel, his dark face was an offensive action akin to the Minstrel shows that had so insulted the African-Americans or so they claimed. An ancient rite was relegated to playful racism and it didn’t take long for the laws and culture to begin to discard the Belsnickeling custom. Remaining only in a few pockets among the Pennsylvania Dutch, Canadian provinces such as Nova Scotia and a few random exceptions. Yet while he may have largely faded from the general consciousness of the people his immense influence had left an impact.

An Old Costume of Belsnickel

Belsnickel was not merely a costume or a mumming custom, he was and is a figure all his own. Largely remaining among the Pennsylvania Dutch and in the Germanic cultures they descend from a masked wild man who was either loved or feared by the children who faced him.

While he did punish wicked children with his birch poles or whips, sometimes to the extreme of stealing children from their beds and either killing them or forcing them to redeem themselves, he also gave them gifts, giving them sweets and chestnuts and his personal gifts known as “Grisht-kindle”. His darkened face was made from ash or bootblack or at times even a mask. A mark of the fires in the chimney, the fertile soil in the field and the dire visage of the dead. Though like other Yuletide figures he went door to door. From him we can find the first seeds of Santa Claus, at the same time poetry and traditions began to arise regarding Santa, while this is often traced to Dutch Immigrants and their importation of Sinterklaas, this is doubtful. The Dutch immigrants who arrived in the area and time period the customs would spawn from did not bring Sinterklaas with them, they were protestants, disinterested or even hostile to the clearly pagan elements of the Sinterklaas tradition.

Though he would most certainly have a part to play in due time, there is no denying that the first germination of the Santa Claus tradition can be found in Belsnickel. The early depictions of Santa easily give way to a figure more akin to Belsnickel than to Sinterklaas but that is not the whole story. It would be so easy and simple to point to a single figure and say “This is Santa” and be done with it. Few things however are that simple as there is yet another Wild Man we must look to before we can discuss the not so Jolly Olde Saint Nick. His name is Father Christmas.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas, a name most have heard usually associated with Santa Claus himself. Yet it was not always this way. Long before Father Christmas was a near mirror image of Santa Claus there was another older tradition on the British isles, instead of a red suit and cap with a bag of toys Father Christmas carried a club or small tree, a wreathe of Holly crowning his head with flowing robes of white cloth and furs were his visage. His face was blackened, his back carried a hump. He was a boisterous loud personality more associated with revelry and drunkenness than much else. His children were Misrule, Mince Pie, Caroling, Mumming and Wassail. He was the overseer of the party to end the year, before he Crystallized, there were the Lords of Christmas and Misrule. Who ruled over the festivities of a much more…. adult Christmas.

It is to these traditions Father Christmas truly belongs. Yet there are two others that make up Father Christmas much like Belsnickel Father Christmas can find his roots in the Wild Men of Europe, his hump and blackened face making this lineage clear. While the club is yet another obvious ascent from the Wild Gods of the Celts, over time aside from his voluminous beard and occasional fur cloak, Father Christmas had shed his pelt and was more shown to be a descendant of the Holly King. A variety of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon customs culminating in this raucous figure.

A Hunchback Old Father Christmas in an 1836 Play with Long Robe, Holly Wreathe and Staff

In many ways Modern Christmas with its family friendly atmosphere was a deliberate replacement for the weeks long celebration known as Yuletide or the Christmas Season. Drunken Wildmen and elaborate parties did not fit the sensibilities of a more… “Civilized” people. While some elements of the visage of Father Christmas remained in early Santa Claus, it was in fact the other way around that the traditions influenced each other.

Father Christmas was not a gift giver, not in the way Santa Claus is seen. He was far more concerned with the Wassail customs going door to door singing, while increasingly inebriated. His retinue was filled with various fellow mumming costumes such as a Young Woman depicting the Maiden or Vixen, an Archer to portray the Hunter who slew the Wild Man or beasts, and plenty of fireworks casters mimicking thunder and lightning.

Even other popular characters would join in the fun, such as the Punch and Judy costumes depicting the fool and other similar Wild Man gods like Harlequin would join in with Father Christmas’ merry making. A verifiable cavalcade of costumed figures. This “Grown Up” Christmas had much less gifts at least of the toys and sweets one may find and far more fun loving adults having the time of their life.

The toys if there were any to be delivered in Merrie Olde Engaland, could be found in the Fae who would deliver gifts to the children during Yuletide. Yet, something odd began to happen in the early 1800’s from seemingly out of nowhere Santa Claus arrived on the doorstep of Father Christmas and began to displace or in some rare occasions work with the Fae to deliver gifts baffling many at the time who had no idea where this figure came from!

Yet the Wassailing Wildman was eventually to give way in all but name to this American myth. The Victorian era graciously accepted Santa Claus fusing him into Father Christmas forever changing the visage and tradition that had been their Christmas God. Gone was the drunken father of festivities and in his place was a joyous and charitable gift giver nearly identical to Santa Claus. Yet the visage of Father Christmas still lingers and shows his older holly adorned head from time to time.

The Ghost of Christmas Present rather blatantly takes notes from his personality and depiction, acquiring most of his attributes as Father Christmas had, from the Holly King. This isn’t to say that Father Christmas did not have some part to play in Santa Claus’ birth, rather that he had much less to do with it than one might think. Especially given that his name has remained nearly synonymous with Santa Claus ever since the Victorian era. It takes little effort to see where these elements may have come from especially once the element of the the Holly King within him can be seen.

Yet, the final piece of the puzzle of the modern Santa Claus is found in the tradition of Sinterklaas, as well or perhaps more with his more monstrous companion… Krampus.

Old Father Christmas by William Ewart Lockhart

Sinterklaas & Krampus

Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Saint, many know him for his long bushy beard and red bishops outfit. Yet this is not his original appearance, not by a long shot. Nor would it truly be accurate to call this visage of his Saint Nicholas but rather Sinterklaas. A name that means much the same thing but carries different connotations. This figure is the form of Saint Nicholas that has incorporated numerous traditions from across the continental Germanic lands. Rendering him a nearly unrecognizable figure from his original role as “The Boy Saint”. His placement from his origins in Southern Europe to the Germanic lands caused a few obvious changes. He gained a large voluminous beard that extended from his now stern countenance, he also gained a variety of Wild Man companions such as Black Pete but most notably he became partnered with an ancient Alpine deity known as Krampus. Yet the distinct differences between the current Sinterklaas and this older Saint Nicholas require some explanation, the form we know him in was not always the visage of the Saint of Children. For he was once a glowing golden child himself.

Saint Nicholas Throwing Golden Balls Through a Window to Provide the Dowry for Three Women Painted in the early 1430’s for a Monastery in Florence

Saint Nicholas was once famed not for his gift giving or Wild Man traditions but for his youth. Depicted baby faced and youthful, with some even associating the beginnings of his cult with an attempt to cover up the deity Apollo. An idea that seems ludicrous when seen through the well known Sinterklaas, but which older depictions of the saint before his Germanic influence took hold, make a rather easy conclusion. With golden hair and a youthful face, it is said when he was just a toddler or even an infant he walked into a church with the intention to join up and was made a bishop while still a youth, much as Apollo began to accomplish impressive deeds shortly after his birth.

Nicholas was the Saint of Children not because of how he treated children; that would come later, rather he was the Saint of Children because he was himself a child. Various legends would arise around this youthful figure including one about a cannibalistic individual who pickled three children who would then repent at the anger and mercy of the Saint, who then revived the three children and either punished or converted the repentant man to Christianity. While this is an interesting tale like many of Saint Nicholas’ legends it is a later addition, perhaps originating from the artistic depictions of the Saint as larger than the average human to show the divinity next to the humble man.

In another legend Saint Nicholas used his wealth to save three women from being made into prostitutes by sending three golden balls through a window to pay their dowries. The symbolism of three golden balls is also unclear as to either its origins or age and it is certainly possible to be a more recent addition to Saint Nicholas’ lore, as the three golden balls are present in much of European folklore. With all of his stories though it is important to understand that most tales of Saints are often either propaganda of hagiographies or an alteration of folklore. This is especially true with folk saints who appear as thinly veiled deities such as the Austrian Saint Notburga or Irish Saint Brigid. When the older Saint Nicholas is taken into consideration however we begin to see why such a figure was chosen.

Sint Nicolaas almanach, voor het jaar 1766

Aside from the Wildman customs which irrevocably changed Saint Nicholas from youthful boy saint to Yuletide traveler and borderline hairy eldritch wildman. Two deities are especially of note in the contribution to his myth. The Dutch-North German Gods of Wodan and Fro.

Both have solar elements but are fairly different. Fro is more a god of fertility and sunshine, while Wodan is hard to pin down. His legend has been heavily conflated with that of other similar sounding gods which makes it hard to discern the folklore of the area pointing more towards a war god with a mix of weather attributes from something more akin to the death and trickster god known to Iceland as Odin. Though older depictions show Wodan with a large beard and an ax and the folklore of him gives him the same stern countenance as Sinterklaas. Wodan was also considered by some to be the god of Sailors. Though this is yet to be substantiated, it is one hypothesis as to why Saint Nicholas was chosen as the saint to cover the god Wodan in some elements of his myths.

Fro is actually easier to understand often depicted youthful or at most with a short beard and wheat adorning his cap he is an easy fit for the Saint of Children. There is one more possibility and that is an old and obscure German word for elf, Niclas.

Sinterklaas With a Horn of Plenty

Belsnickel mentioned above was often depicted as an elf and Belsnickel is often named as “Nicholas in Furs” but the name could just as easily have meant “Hairy Elf” originally. Likewise gods associated with the dead like Wodan, Fro or Krampus find themselves associated with elves easily. Both in their role as nature spirits and as ancestral spirits. In other words Nicholas may have been chosen to be placed over Wodan and Fro for tenuous visual connections or because for some he was the Saint of Sailors. Yet it may have been little more than a linguistic trick. How easy would it be to take a name that sounded so similar and incorporate it into existing traditions. With a small make over the Youthful Saint finds himself much older, hairier and surrounded by spirits of the land and of the dead snarling with birch poles, chains and whips, shaggier than him by far. Sinterklaas has in many ways become the elf king and as such incorporated all that went with it. This newly remade “Holy Elf” now traveled across the sky on a horse much like Wodan in the wild hunt, while like Fro he now carried sun symbolism and a symbol of bounty, the Cornucopia. Though from the elves he gained some of the few elements of legend that would carry onto Santa Claus, such as traveling down the chimney.

The Hearth or Chimney as the heart of the home was where one could commune with the other world and the realm of the dead, which was a place of sunshine and eventually this realm that may have been ruled or communed with via Krampus, Wodan, Fro or another unknown deity became associated with Spain, itself a land of sunshine and by extension became the home of Sinterklaas. The darkened face of the Wild Man companions and those who embodied the spirits of the dead became a Spanish Moor and the modern iteration of Black Pete was born in the low countries. Yet, another tradition one of stockings may come from Sinterklaas as well.

As children would leave out their shoes to receive gifts from Sinterklaas and the various spirits who aided him. These elements are by no means unique to Sinterklaas but it would be hard to ignore that this does sound a lot like Santa Claus’ Modus Operandi, Chimneys and Stockings and elves oh my!

Yet it is not only Sinterklaas that has found his way into being a seed of Santa Claus, perhaps just as much or even more so his companions those of Krampus and the original bestial Black Pete found their way there. Krampus before the introduction of Saint Nicholas was the deity of the Yuletide across much of the Alps. Other deities such as Wode, Holle, Perchta, etc. Were also involved. But it is the “Devil of Christmas” that reigned supreme. His tradition was so prominent that even to this day parts of the Alps retain the ancient Alpine Horned god and his retinue of wildmen. Yet Sinterklaas is missing entirely. Krampus was no addition. He was the original.

To avoid looking out of place the very personality and appearance of Saint Nicholas had to change so drastically as to be unrecognizable when compared to his older form. Krampus’ wildmen with their blackened faces, embodied the spirits of the dead, their ash covered faces both a symbol of their origins and of the ash to be found in the chimneys they would deliver gifts through.

For Krampus not only punished the wicked, adults and children alike, he also gifted the good. While it would be wrong to say he was not always a fierce and terrifying creature, so much as why would that bother us? Many deities and spirits are shaggy or possessed of animal parts from Faunus to Cernunnos. Some like Artio or Ursula would appear in animal form almost exclusively be they bear or owl among whom a figure like Krampus would not be out of place. The birch poles he struck people with were not punishment so much as a blessing of fertility, a branch of the tree of life to wish one a fertile field or a fertile marriage.

Despite modern misconceptions of pop culture, Krampus has never been the villain of the holiday, he functioned more as the bad cop to Sinterklaas’ good cop. Sinterklaas would go door to door with his array of spirits and quiz children on how good they’d been and how well they had studied Christianity. With the distinct risk of being taken or beaten by him or his companion Krampus should they fail. Krampus retains much of his original fertility aspects from his Ibex horns and shaggy coat to his birch pole and harvest basket on his back. Most notably in many depictions Krampus is shown with many children or infants, a result of his “phallic” nature. Or with a female Krampus or even a woman all too pleased and aroused by the beast at her door.

Though possibly one of the most notable elements is that while Krampus is a distinct figure, he is also a set of nature spirits. Like the deity he is he presides over the spirits of nature and the dead, yet he is also a group of spirits who partake in the Krampus Runs often ruled over by Sinterklaas. In them, Sinterklaas is even more bestial than normal he at times is now not only stern and shaggy but also possesses monstrous features of his own. These tribes or troupes of Krampus go around cavorting making noise, blessing the land and shooing away any more malignant spirits. When they cross paths however the Krampus attack each other, tribe vs tribe in violent wrestling matches with each groups Sinterklaas functioning as both commander and referee. This yuletide battle of spirits is mimicked across the alps and into other areas as well. Werewolves battle devils in the Baltic, in the Friuli region of Italy the Benandante fight with Witches in spirit battles with their commander beating a drum on each side, while in the alps Pretty Perchten and Ugly Perchten do battle much the same way. The battle is for fertility and is a fight between the spirits of the living; who are gifted animistic spirit powers, against the spirits of the dead and of nature. The Winner is often ambiguous.

Who knows how much of Krampus’ original role ended up becoming a part of Sinterklaas’ myth? Yet, while these two figures and the others already mentioned are the seeds of “who” Santa Claus is, the exact “what?” requires a broader view of the whole of Yuletide and the party, procession and pursuit across the sky that so colors the mythology of the season.

The Wild Hunt & The Yuletide

The Yuletide is beyond ancient, whatever it is called people can feel it in their blood and bones, in their heart and soul. The season transcends the individual holidays dotting it and possesses a certain magic that permeates everything in the air and the soil, in the sunbeams and the crackling ice. Spirits walk the earth and mankind finds itself in a state of revelry as the world fades to its deathlike sleep. The legends across much of Europe begin to mimic a common tone and feeling, symbolism of the dead, of the forest, of blood and of the celestial lights. One of the most widespread and important myths of the continent is also one of the most relevant to the Jolly Old Elf known as Santa Claus, that of the Wild Hunt.

The Wild Hunt has many names: the Furious Host, the Santa Compaña, the Parade of Spirits, the Riders of the Sidhe, The Goat Riders, The Night Battles, among other less common names. There are so many variations and figures across the whole of Europe that to over focus on any one figure of the hunt to explain it would be foolish. Yet it is in this myth of Europe that all of the figures who contributed the seeds of Santa Claus find their own roots and branches. Belsnickel and Krampus are part of the Wilder Mann processions who embody the spirits who take part in the hunt, while Sinterklaas inherits the Psychopomp and Sky Rider elements present within, Father Christmas and his fellow wildmen bring fertility, as does Sinterklaas when paired with his cornucopia. Father Christmas’ antecedent and arguably inspiration the Holly King brings with him the cold of Winter and the harvest and so too does the Wild Hunt.

Powerful figures rule over these processions, figures such as Fraw Selga, Venus, Diana, Holda, Perchta, Berchtold, Harke, Heuke, Dirk, Wotan, Gaude, Rübezahl, Harlequin, Finn McCool, King Arthur, Barbarossa, The Eternal Hunter, Yarillo, The Old Frick and many many more figures serve as Wild Huntsman and Huntress, far too many to count or to explain concisely. The myth even found its way to the United States with legends of the Wild Hunt taking root on the East Coast before transmogrifying into the Ghost Riders in the Sky out west. Yet this nighttime ride across the sky also bled into the legend of Santa Claus, in more ways than one. For while the Wild Hunt occasionally rides horses they are much more likely to hunt on foot across the sky or to ride atop various animals such as Dirk and his boar or have them lead their carriage such as Gaude with her dogs or most notably to ride atop a deer.

Frau Gaude by Ludwig Pietsch

Stags are incredibly common figures in the wild hunt not just as quarry but also as mounts. The stags status as figures of the Otherworld is well known, especially those with a white coloration, as in the legend of Saint Notburga who rode across a river to the land of the dead atop a White Stag. Or the legend of Saint Hubertus who saw a vision of the cross between the antlers of a magnificent stag. While horses share this role, the hunt seems to have favored its deer mounts, perhaps a call back to the larger deer that once populated Europe, it may even stretch back to pre-historic times in some form or another. Yet the Wild Hunt also has another legend that is integral to the Santa Claus myth, that of its role as Psychopomp and gift givers.

During both the Yuletide and preceding holidays, such as Halloween, the Hunt gathers both the spirits of the dead and the spirits of nature. The spirits of the night of the year differ from the rest, many Summer spirits such as Moss People begin to flee into the trees to escape a fate as the target of the hunt. While others begin to come out in full force such as King Frost and his armies, Holle travels across the sky leading the Parade of Spirits and collecting the souls of the fields and of the dead, taking them to the meadow of the ancestors, while The Eternal Hunter gathers the plant spirits before they can be destroyed by King Frost’s forces. People would even burn or collect effigies to protect spirits or send them on their way. Examples such as the tradition of Corn Dollies made in Germany to contain the Korndämonen during Winter only to release them in the hearth flames come spring. Or the burning of the Butzemann, a magical scarecrow who tends farms among the Pennsylvania Dutch.

These traditions are all wrapped up in the tales of the Wild Hunt, with it being said that they not only take spirits with them but bring them from the other realms to ours. If a house spirit is to be shifted out it is when the gods are visiting and the ancestors tag along. Offerings of milk, porridge, baked goods, alcohol and feasts are left out for the spirits, the gods and the dead. These house elves are all too happy to move in with their distant descendants and take up residence as a hairy Brownie or a scarf wearing mouse who rocks the cradle and spins the flax.

Scrooge sees the air filled with phantoms. Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol.’

In the broader Yuletide the house spirits, ghosts and the “elves” are even more prominent. These ghosts of the dead can be seen in the Yuletide tradition of leaving out food for “The Good Women” or female ancestors in Germany, though it seems to be a general ancestor veneration custom to leave food out for them and any deities that may come by. The Ghost Children who make up the retinue of Frau Perchta are happy to take an offering of milk, while to the north in Scandinavia the ancestral tutelary deities known as Tomte gladly receive a gift of porridge and butter for their hard work on the farm. Yet the Good Women, Heimchen and Tomte, are not the only examples of such ancestral beings around the Yuletide, further south upon the Isle of Sardinia there is a tradition of gift giving spirits. Ghosts of the ancestors that take the gifts from shopkeepers and deliver them to their families, no elves to cobble things together just good old fashioned ghost burglary. Yet the common thread of these ghosts and elves is that they like to visit during the Yuletide and enjoy a bit of a snack or meal for their troubles, it is good hospitality after all.

These ancestral spirits whether hairy elf, ethereal ghost or shimmering maiden all tie into a broader element of the season, that of the magical gift giver. Just as this role seems to vary between spirits in some areas like the Tomte with the Yule Goat in Sweden and the Fae in England or deities such as the case of the gods who make up Sinterklaas’ pagan core or Krampus in more remote areas. Belsnickel as well would give gifts, as would well known deities like Holle who would arrive in her carriage or sleigh with bells ringing to announce her arrival and Perchta also leaving gifts for children. All of the above deities would punish the naughty in some way or form. Ranging from leaving a switch for the family to handle matters to straight up taking them to another realm and torturing them or even killing them, though these gifts were not unique to children.

The Wild Hunt and its various figures often gave gifts to adults and many were more than happy to hunt the worst among them. The Eternal Hunter was known to favor hunting and killing low quality women with his magic shotgun while Perchta may reward someone she may also blind them or deform them with her magic if she thought them rude or wicked. Krampus was known to hunt the worst among the people.

Yet they all also gave gifts through the cold and the dark nights. Gifts of gold or meat, in one such story the Wod a corn giant and fertility deity from the West Germanic’s came upon a drunken man and challenged him to a tug of war contest, which the man won by tying the other end to a tree. He received several cuts of venison as a gift which he took home in his boots only to find them turned to gold by the time he was home. Other stories have Perchta and her Heimchen crossing a river and paying the ferrymen with meaningless wooden shards which he discards most only to find the ones he kept turned to gold, a similar ferryman story is told of the Wild Hunt in general. None of the figures have a monopoly on gift giving nor the knowledge of who is naughty or nice, a sort of mild omniscience that shows itself in other tales involving the deities outside of the hunt.

The Wild Hunt brings terrifying storms, freezing winds and a thick covering of glittering snow. They are just as much an elemental force as they are collectors of the dead. Since they brought the harsh restful beauty of Winter the hunt also found itself associated with the last harvest and the taboos associated with it. The Hunt was known for punishing those on the twelfths who had shirked the completion of their duties. Those with unfinished spinning answered to Perchta and her boiling tubs or found their bellies pierced by a sickle. Those who couldn’t be bothered to put away their farming implements found them shattered and crushed under the hooves of Dirk and his Boar. Yet alongside these end of the year customs that brought the previous time to an end there were also those wishing for a bountiful tomorrow. These included the festive tradition of Wassailing, singing and dancing door to door in splendid costumes of fools and skeletal animals, of maidens and wildmen. Wishing people and the land respectively good health, luck, fertility and a joyous new year! Alongside this mumming custom of Wassailing there was also a slightly more solemn affair regarding the Wassailing of the orchard and spirits therein.

A Depiction of Father Christmas and a Wassail Bowl

Orchards have always been a common place for many myths and customs. One such example is an English spirit known as “The Apple Tree Man” he is said to be the spirit of the oldest apple tree in the orchard and to hold the fertility of the orchard in his hands. People would give an offering of mulled cider to their trees as a gift to him, in one such case he was said to tell one man where gold was buried on Christmas Eve as thanks.

The apple has always held elements of rebirth in European lore at times early on before the Pine Tree became the norm Apple Trees served as one example of communal Christmas Trees before the custom was shooed inside to avoid the eye of the church. But its mythic elements do not stop there, the goddess Holle also governs reincarnation and seems to pluck the souls of newborn babes from an apple tree that doubles as the tree of life. While a more ambiguous tree of life exists in Greece, where the tradition of the Kallikantzaroi a kind of Yuletide Goblin exists who spends all year cutting the Tree of Life down to wreak havoc during the Yuletide however when they return underground on the 6th of January they find the tree regrown. It’s safe to say trees and apples have had more than their fair share to do with the Yuletide for centuries if not more. But what does all this have to do with Santa Claus?

As was said at the very beginning, Santa was born in the Yuletide…..

Santa Claus Comes to Town

The very essence of Santa Claus is the Yuletide personified, the Spirit of the Season and of Christmas. There is good reason for this. In the early folklore of America along the east coast where English, Irish, Dutch, and especially German immigrants settled the lore of many beings came with them from Germania came the lore of Belsnickel and the remembrance of Sinterklaas and his older antecedents. From Albion Father Christmas came and bringeth goode cheere. Bit by bit the church had chipped away at the Yuletide, while many had come to America to protect their more heathen customs from the Churches witch hunts, others had come with more stringent minds and a battle for the very spirit of America seemed to take place. Each heathen custom be it Belsnickeling, a good Wassail or Christmas Punch, a Tree to mark the season or any other thing they found unsavory they combated, ridiculed and in some cases nearly wiped out. In Europe much the same was happening, while it was being relegated to little more than a mass if anything in America, in Europe the same was happening and the desire to keep employees at their work only increased. Christmas was an obstacle, a relic that needed done away with and they nearly succeeded in doing so.

The raucous celebrations overseen by Father Christmas and the Lord of Misrule simply wouldn’t do, Sinterklaas was far too pagan so was Krampus and all that time that THEIR workers dared to take off, well that just wouldn’t do. But as was fitting of the season a miracle occurred. One rather humdrum by most standards but no less influential. A book was written. A certain story called “A Christmas Carol” you may have heard of it. The story touched hearts across the Western World and the holiday was saved, if at a cost. What had once been twelve days and before that an entire season, was now relegated to a day or at best two. The holiday did not vanish but it needed a new mascot, one to do away with the revelry, parties and horrific monsters, instead a more jolly, family friendly figure was required. Then one appeared! In his infancy not yet bound by a rigid definition, he was perfect! That figure was Santa Claus.

Sure Santa Claus was rough around the edges in his early lore, much of his story not yet defined. He came, he gave gifts, he might ride a deer, he might be walking, sometimes he would be depicted far different from the modern Santa with a short brown goatee and one deer drawn sleigh, other times his Wildman would show and his fur coat grew from him rather than rested atop him.

His face covered in ash and soot, a pipe smoked from his mischievous lips. He also had an odd penchant for kidnapping the naughty kids and forcing them into labor camps as his elves, only returning them long after their families had died of old age. Not very family friendly at all from the civilized perspective yet true to our nature. But his youth made him malleable and his visage was powerful, they went to work making a mascot of this American Gift Giver, spreading him to the four winds his visage over the following centuries would spread across Europe and even into Siberia, eventually becoming more well known than the Jewish Wizard the Holiday has supposedly been named for.

Santa Claus Stuffing a Naughty Child into a Sack in a Vintage Christmas Card

As a result Santa became an extremely popular subject for Yuletide art, card after card became emblazoned with depictions of Santa Claus, many of which depicted him thinner than the traditional rotund Santa Claus seen in the art of Thomas Nast and the poem “The Night Before Christmas” which had him nearly spherical around his middle. His form had not yet solidified, his myth, his story, was still in flux, colors, animals, food, too much variation. Made it easy enough to clip bits here and there, but as much as they were able to use Santa Claus to re-brand Christmas from its weeks long celebration of gift giving, drunken revelry and numerous rituals. They could not have foreseen that their actions would propel Santa Claus from obscure American myth to worldwide acclaim, nor could they have foreseen the sheer amount of pagan lore that would inevitably get tied into him bit by bit, until we have the figure we see today.

Vintage Cards and Paintings showing Santa in various colored coats including, Brown, Green, Pink, Blue, White, American Flag, Gold, Patterned, Purple, and his most well known Red.

America has often been presented as a Christian Nation, though a glance through history will show this to be false. While Christians dotted the country, the Church and its ilk had never had a firm grip in the olden days. The countryside with its folk heroes, spirits, animal cults and gods were resplendent with unique traditions and continuations of older European customs. The idea of America being so incredibly Christian arises from the same people who did their best to crush the tradition of the Belsnickel and the Christmas Tree. If you write the book history can be whatever you want it to be.

So it was not in some dutiful pious Christian Nation that Santa arose, no…. he arose in a land replete with heathen customs, both the new ones and the stubborn hold overs from eons past. As such he was no stranger to the same landscape that possessed Father Christmas, Belsnickel, The Holly King or The Wild Man. When this landscape is taken into consideration it isn’t hard to see how the Yuletide could birth such a figure as Santa Claus, yet before we finally connect the dots there is a bit more of his origin story that must be discussed. While the nucleus of Santa Claus had begun to grow, he was but an embryo of a figure. Not yet full grown or fully formed the first bits of the final touches were done by Bavarian Immigrant Thomas Nast and his art, as well as the poem ’twas the Night Before Christmas often attributed to Clement Moore (though there is plenty of debate as to who is it’s true author).

Thomas Nast was born in Bavaria though he spent most of his early life in America having emigrated there in the 1840’s. Nast is famous for being one of the progenitors of the current Santa Claus image and while his view was likely colored partly by his families Bavarian heritage the Santa Claus he would end up depicting was unapologetically American.

He had to be, for Nast was not a painter or an illustrator by trade, he was a political cartoonist. His earliest depictions of Santa Claus for Harper’s Magazine paint Santa Claus as not only a firmly American figure but also firmly Union, as Nast was a staunch Republican and during the Civil War his depictions of Santa Claus began to appear on a regular basis. The first such one may mark the original depiction of Nast’s Santa and he is neither decked out in furs nor in red, but in the Stars and Stripes.

Nast’s first depiction of Santa in his Stars and Stripes was printed in 1863, forty years after the anonymous publishing of ’twas the Night Before Christmas. Yet aside from the prominent belly and what appears to be white tailed deer not much has been retained from one figure to the other. It is unclear how much of Santa’s coming down the chimney existed before the famous poem but it is more than likely it predates it and instead merely popularized it. The same can be said of his deer, while the number and name of the deer can both be credited to the poem, Santa Claus having a deer cannot, that predates the poem. The famous poem attributed to Moore can also be disregarded as originating most of the customs rather popularizing them or at least the knowledge of them. Older tales like that of “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” depict him in much the same way, though the illustrations depict him with a single deer and brown beard, the poem does not seem to mention with what or how he travels. Indicating this was an already understood element of his myth. What we see in ’twas the Night Before Christmas is therefore a crystallization of myth combined with personal flare. Nast was likely aware of this poem and Santa was not the only mythic American figure he gladly used, also often using the Goddess Columbia in his cartoons. Nast would eventually use Santa Claus in far more depictions until he eventually published his own book of said illustrations. Similar to the older poems it is unknown if we can attribute to Nast traditions such as Santa’s workshop in the North Pole but he certainly popularized it and it remains so to this day.

A Depiction of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

His later depictions begin to show a certain resemblance, not to Saint Nicholas but to the Wild Men of the Yuletide. He wears furs with a soot covered face, he is adored by children who smile when he approaches. He is also even more plump than he once was in the poem, where he is described as having

“He had a broad face, and a little round belly that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly”.

That round belly wasn’t so little anymore. At the same time as the American’s had been slowly fattening Santa Claus up while developing his myth, the Christmas Cards so gladly portraying Santa Claus across America and Western Europe had yet to settle on a specific look. Aside from an old bearded man in a robe he was clearly Santa Claus and so was Nast’s portrayal but Santa Claus was American, it was to them the final say would be had. It wouldn’t be until the middle of the 20th century that Santa Claus as we know and love him today would truly arrive.

Santa Claus had been a popular symbol of Christmas for generations at the point that his most well known artists would portray him, the likes of Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker and perhaps most importantly Haddon Sunblom.

Rockwell and Leyendecker had portrayed Santa Claus on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post for decades before the most infamous portrayal of Santa came into being. They tended to favor the color red and depicted him in a variety of situations at times on the thinner side but more likely rotund. When Coca Cola commissioned Sunblom to create an advertisement for Coca Cola featuring Santa Claus, he used a local friend to model for him and drew inspiration from these older depictions from famous artists. He also solidified the Red Suit which while predating him became the one and only suit color from that day forward, Coca Cola red or if you prefer blood red.

Norman Rockwell would continue to depict Santa Claus, at times supposedly taking notes from the Holly King for his depictions or trying to favor a blue suit but in the end the Red won out. Santa Claus finally becoming as we know him today. Santa Claus had come to town, in fact he had come bearing gifts, as all these elements of myth and lore collided The Legend of Santa Claus took shape across the centuries. The Story of the God of Christmas with his many companions and accouterments and it was told again and again this is his story…

Various Depictions of Santa Claus over the years by J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell

The Legend of Santa Claus

Born in the Yuletide in times long past some say he is a spirit, others a forest god, some say he is a man of flesh and blood just as you or I. He is all of these and more. Many of us grew up hearing the stories of a Jolly Old Elf riding across the sky and flying down the chimney delivering gifts from his endless sack of toys, children filled with Christmas glee would leave cookies and milk, tobacco and carrots all for this Christmas gift giver. Yet his story is much much more told bit by bit over the centuries his myth as rich as any other.

In the genesis of his tale he walked door to door across the snowy landscape, stars in the sky, breath frozen in the raging blizzards. A Yule Log or tree strapped to his back and an ax hanging from his side. He was alone. A Yuletide traveler stopping place to place with gifts, for he was a toy-maker adorned in rich furs and smelling of pipe tobacco. Some children greeted him with joyful smiles others with cries of terror as they would be spirited away never to see their families again while they toiled among his Elves. Other times he held the reins of a horse or stag much like other ghosts of the Parade of Spirits. He was on foot or on hoof and following him were the winds of winter, frost and snow freezing the cobblestone paths and windows he passed. His abode like others of German and American myth was a great castle, it appeared out of nowhere filled with Elves or Fae. Then as soon as it was seen it faded along with its mystical inhabitants. Over the years as times changed so did his manner of travel.

A sleigh was added to his steed, hot air balloons were flown and old boats staffed with elves were rowed across the sea. When he had finished his Nighttime Ride Santa would skate home across the frozen rivers, lakes and seas. He began to favor the use of the hearths and fireplaces for his entrance traveling the realms like the Fae and heroes of old. His castle settled in the lands beyond the Northern Wind, the North Pole becoming his home a Frozen Elphame populated by himself, his elves and eventually all the others who would populate this retinue and realm of the Christmas season. His stag became a reindeer and it was joined by many others until the standard team of eight was born. He met and married his wife Mrs. Claus some say her name was Gertrude and she was German others say she was American and named Jennifer, but still many other names and perhaps in fact many women have served as the wife of this immortal Christmas spirit.

All the while Santa Claus became more and more renowned the subject of Christmas Carols and Poetry. Art appeared and idols were crafted to the God of Christmas. He brought joy to children and armies, he was embodied in fathers and the spirit of giving and communal bonds.

Just as he traded in his tree and horn of plenty for an endless sack of toys his popularity exploded. Santa Claus was no longer an obscure gift giver, he was THE gift giver. He had a list and he checked it twice, he had a kingdom to rule, full of elves, polar bears, goblins, wildmen and beasts. Yet every Christmas Eve he flew down upon the lands of his people flying across the sky traveling the realms through shadow and flame. People began to put idols in their yards and their windows, in their own personal tree of life dotted with little lights to light his way. They sang to him and told stories of him, stories that continue to this day for his myth has not yet ended.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (At Christmas)

While Santa began as a figure of folklore and oral tradition the figure has long had his stories told through broader media including comics, cartoons, books and film. As the oral tradition faded into the background this element was what became the core means through which his myth grew and perpetuated.

Before and after this transition occurred Santa’s myth had developed many traditions one of the most notable is that of the letters to and from Santa Claus. A tradition that continues to this day with many families having the parents act as Santa Claus responding and reading the letters, while others send their letters off to many Christmas themed towns such as Santa Claus, Indiana where thousands of letters are sent and responded to by “Elves”.

This tradition spans continents and centuries being performed by figures such as Mark Twain and J.R.R. Tolkien. In 1875 Mark Twain wrote to his daughter Susy as Santa Claus in a rather cryptic and perhaps even slightly morbid letter. In it Mark Twain remarks that Santa Claus is also known as “The Man in the Moon” and not only resides on the Moon rather than the North Pole but is illiterate though he can understand and interpret the thoughts and dreams of children. Twain’s letter also mentions a lot of oddly specific requests for Susy and her brother, with the threat of her brothers death should they fail… While between 1920-1943 Tolkien wrote letters replete with illustrations to his Children as “Father Christmas” though this figure had long since been fused with the myth of Santa Claus which is clear from his presence in the North Pole with a Polar Bear as a rather comical companion. Father Christmas is also forced to fight off goblin hordes to defend his frozen home a precursor to the eventual epics of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. These are two of the most famous instances of the “Letters To Santa” tradition though thousands perhaps even millions of people have taken part in this Yuletide ritual. In these small stories however are the blossoms of Santa’s Mythology the figures present in Santa Claus’ stories have multiplied no longer a solitary traveler he is a now a king and a family man. He has even been given some semblance of his increasingly warrior tendencies as well as his deep connection to children in both stories.

One of the Letters J.R.R. Tolkien Wrote to his Son John in the Guise of Father Christmas with Original Art by Tolkien himself depicting a Santafied Father Christmas.

Much as his mythic predecessors Santa Claus is also the leader of a procession or at least the star attraction of the most famous parade in America; The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Ever since 1924 The Santa Claus float has been the highlight with many children waiting at the parade just for a chance to see Santa Claus. A tradition that expands to many other parades across the United States, Thanksgiving acting as the unofficial start of the Christmas season, the Yuletide if you will.

Santa Claus as the Last Float in the First Macy’s Christmas Parade 1924, it was later renamed the Thanksgiving Parade though Santa remained the star attraction.

Though another tradition just as ancient and pagan is practiced every Christmas Season, sitting atop a Velvet Throne with a Royal Guard of Elves surrounded by symbols of bounty and glee people take their children to see the God of Christmas. Introducing them to Santa Claus as their ancestors had to their gods for millennia. From ancient pagan times through the period of the agrarian “Witch Cults” meeting figures like Richella, Krampus and Akerbeltz.

Our people have always dressed as their heroes and gods and embodied them in spirit and in garb. Santa Claus is no different. The best devote their lives to embodying the God of Christmas hand making their Santa Coat with the finest of materials and skills, they learn to embody him, they grow their beard and model their entire visage after him. All so they may ask the magic questions “and have you been a good boy/girl this year?” and “What would you like for Christmas?”. Taking this a step further the Santa’s have been known to take their role extremely seriously. Many cases of Santa’s after hearing a child confess abuse or other indignities performed against them, the strength and warrior side rises from Santa Claus and a vicious beating of the perpetrator is performed.

Other Santa’s visit the children in hospital comforting them and telling them of Christmas and the North Pole, sometimes being the last thing the child sees before dying in the arms of their Yuletide god.

Yet still some of the oldest traditions continue in the subtlest ways. Beside the fire people read stories of the Christmas season. They read the old classics such as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas as well as many other popular tales, the same myths have come forth across the years. Tolkien’s Letters have been published as a book of their own “The Father Christmas Letters” often placed beside the Miracle that Saved Christmas “A Christmas Carol”. Other classics have emerged as time went on, in 1985 “The Polar Express” appeared based on Michigan folklore which told of children being spirited away in their dreams to the North Pole within a magic Christmas train after which one of them will receive the first gift of Christmas. The book became an instant classic and modernized many older elements of the mythology.

Cover art for The Polar Express

In 1990 the wordless classic “On Christmas Eve” was written this time a British classic of Father Christmas as Santa Claus, the Fae of old returning to aid him in his deliveries taking the candles from the Christmas Trees to create a runway with which he could land and deliver his gifts to the chimney-less children. All of these stories and more are retold at Christmas to the young children who crowd around the light of the tree and of the fireplace to hear them, much as we have done for millennia.

Older yuletide traditions of the feasts and revelry continue as well, if far more restrained then the old celebrations ruled over by wildmen and the Lord of Misrule. Whether homemade in kitchens or abounding in store aisles and bakery shelves one would be hard pressed to avoid one of the oldest of old pagan customs. The making of sweets in the shape of their god.

Whether bread or baked good, cookie or chocolate the figure of Santa often in his old hooded attire with sack of toys and tree of life in tow appears as a popular treat. These are more likely than not to end up on a plate of cookies left for him, a hold over from his now largely forgotten role as Lord of the Dead, a leader of Christmas Ghosts and the Parade of Spirits. Yet still it is done not out of some religiosity but because it feels right and brings a smile to the face of child and parent alike as it has since the Long Long Ago.

Customs and literature eventually bled into radio and film as the oral tradition faded bit by bit. As had been done in Mummers Plays and Greek Tragedies the God found himself the subject of mass media. Classic films like “Miracle on 34th street” (1947) took inspiration from the Macy’s Parade and told a story of belief, hope and family. A story that only reached larger heights of mythic resonance with it’s remake in 1994. In which much of the story repeats but the “Kris Kringle” who serves as the films Santa Claus is made even more capable. Able to bring not only great gifts, goode cheere and communal bonds but pregnancy as well. All to grant the hopes of a young girl he befriends giving her the family and home she always wanted. The films not so subtle nod to the bountiful gifts of a fertility god, the film is also one of the most famous examples of his Epithet of Kris Kringle. A stubborn remainder of Belsnickel’s “Grisht-kindle” within Santa Claus.

In the middle of the 20th century one finds a plethora of Christmas films stretching into the modern day. Thousands have been made but few have stood the test of time and added to the myth of Santa more than Miracle on 34th Street. One can look to the Rankin-Bass Films such as “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” (1985) based on a book by L. Frank Baum (1902). Which involves immortal forest spirits and eldritch horrors. Before that were several other films including “The Year Without a Santa Claus” featuring pagan Gods of Fire, Ice and even Mother Earth herself. Or the most famous by far “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (1964) where Donner (Thunder) the lead Reindeer of Santa Claus sires his son the magical Red Nosed Rudolph (Glory-Wolf). This is easily the most influential of all the Rankin-Bass specials it brought Santa’s reindeer up to the sacred number nine versus the standard eight. With Rudolph quickly becoming the most popular Reindeer and the defacto steed of Santa Claus. It also introduced the Abominable Snow Man which looked less like the Nepalese Yeti and more like a European Wildman or Barbegazi with the prospector Yukon Cornelius functioning as the other half of the wild man. The film had built on top of the already present lore and had begun to increasingly return the old magic of Yuletide to the Christmas Season and so the myth of Santa Claus.

Rudolph Saves the Day With his Red Nose in the Rankin-Bass Classic Film

Releasing the same year as the remake of Miracle on 34th Street the film known as “The Santa Clause” (1994) arguably the last iconic Christmas film of the 20th century was released replete with pagan imagery and concepts. It catapulted the Santa Claus myth that was fading back into prominence. It depicts Santa not as a physical being but an immortal spirit. One that when the physical body is killed simply can pass to a new individual incorporating the new personality into the larger whole of Santa Claus. The film stars Tim Allen as Scott Calvin, a jaded executive of a Toy Company who slowly transforms into the joyous holiday gift giver known as Santa Claus. Magically growing an unshaveable beard, a powerful build and Santa Claus belly. He also gains the mild omnipotence, obsessive love for cookies and jolly disposition of Santa Claus.

The film depicts a reincarnation cycle though instead of being born, the Christmas God known as Santa Claus possesses an individual creating an ecstatic experience where one becomes one with their god allowing him to skip childhood and go straight to adulthood.

The elves here are neither the hairy spirits of older depictions or the macabre spirits of the dead. Instead they are immortal beings with eternally youthful appearance which allows them to easily interact and study children. They develop magical technologies, better cocoa, better cookies and live in the North Pole Kingdom where Scott Calvin will eventually rule. All the Elves instinctively know he is Santa. After all he embodies the spirit and within a year will even look like their king. The film has a specific ritual or contract that must be fulfilled, though the Reindeer more or less trick Scott into doing so and as Santa Claus is shown to have some power over children, Scott’s son could be seen as inherently driving his father to replace the Santa he accidentally killed. He even possesses the ability to create snow using Christmas Magic yet another element of his myth that has perpetuated into the modern day.

At the turn of the Millennia Santa Claus media seems to have gone into overdrive, producing an immense amount of Christmas lore surrounding Santa Claus. Films, Comics, Books and many other forms of media were created as elements of the myth became more and more popular. At the same time the recognition of Santa’s pagan origins resulted in his conflation with the god Othin and customs of Sami Shamanism. Despite his origins being with the American settlers from Germany and the British Isles it was Scandinavia and the lands even further North that had become the focus of Santa Claus’ myth. Elements of old Yuletide customs from across Europe increasingly became a part of Santa’s mythos. While the American Christmas God became popular across the North appearing as far East as Japan as a figure of pop culture, while Europe began to see Santa Claus replace their own gift givers that had largely faded into obscurity. Partially in defiance or perhaps by clever design of Santa the European figures grew and grew until Santa had awakened a veritable Yuletide Pantheon. La Befana, Krampus, Father Christmas, The Yule Goat, The Yule Lads, Father Frost, Black Pete and many others became more and more popular. This blending of the American Mythology with the heritage of the old gods resulted in an accelerated return to the pagan roots of the Christmas Myth.

It was none too soon either as the myth of Santa had largely begun to slide into melancholy. His appearances in story and media increasingly jaded such as in Jingle all the Way where those who embody Santa are part of a criminal syndicate. Or across many popular shows such as The Simpsons, America Dad, Family Guy, South Park and many others. Where Santa was often jaded, exhausted and completely disheartened by the consumerism and horrid actions of the modern world consumed by greed. This is not to say that it was all negative. Films like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966 & 2000) reminded people it was those next to them who were the true gift not the presents beneath the tree. It also pushed the Wildman front and center again in the mythology. Coca Cola had reintroduced the Yule Bear by design in it’s ads featuring Polar Bears (1922-Present) in an attempt to copyright Christmas, something they had attempted many times before and failed. Many of the traditions still continued and grew; films like Arthur Christmas (2011) recognized the jaded elements of the holiday but still proposed a positive lesson and hope for the future of the holiday and Santa himself. It also continued a trend of Santa Claus as a family business.

The film Rise of the Guardians (2012), based on the Guardians of Childhood book series, casts Santa as Hyperborean Slavic warrior Nicholas St. North a toymaker, warrior and Guardian of Childhood Wonder who was gifted immortality by the Man in the Moon. His toys are made by Arctic Wildmen instead of elves. While the Klaus comics (2015) by Grant Morrison presented a Yuletide Pantheon capable of being their own superheroes, with Santa being a warrior made immortal for his sacrifice to bring joy to the joyless by spirits of the Aurora Borealis. This Superhero Santa fought giants in space and flew through the stars with magic wolves.

Even recently the film Klaus (2019) presented an origin story not only for Santa Claus but the tradition of writing letters. With a Postal Worker as the catalyst that took the woods dwelling toymaker from hermit to legend to ascended God of Christmas, even tying in the Sami who had recently been added to the legend but whose traditional costume and crafts became the origin of both the elves and red suit for Santa Claus in the film.

A Promotional Image from Netflix’s Klaus 2019 featuring the titular version of Santa Claus as a Toymaker and Woodsman

Yet the melancholy did not spare his stories but it began to recognize a necessity. Figures like Krampus brought a welcome change, as Santa had had his claws and pelt taken from him as he became more family friendly, Krampus became a much darker and less forgiving figure in American folk culture. Quickly equaling Santa Claus in popularity and serving at times as the dark demon Santa fights and other times as the caring disciplinarian to a corporate Santa Claus long since corrupt. However other films cast a completely different solution while films like Elf (2003) and the Christmas Chronicles (2018) dealt with issues of losing faith in the season and in Santa Claus.

2020’s action film Fatman instead chooses to focus on Santa as an immortal with a contract with the US government. While he leaves coal for the often misbehaving and spoiled children and gives gifts to good kids to boost the economy. Children have long since mostly ended up on the Naughty List, with one kid who received coal even hiring a hit man to kill Santa Claus. While the hit man successfully shoots “Kris” in the eye. He is immortal and decides to get back in touch with his roots. The now one eyed “Fatman” goes to the child who hired the would be assassin, returning to his ancient ways of being more than happy to dish out a final solution to the worst of children, making it clear if the child slips up again he will rip him from his bed and kill him.

From then on Santa returns to his more “proactive self” a sort of happy medium that avoids the good and evil dichotomy that had slowly been built with the reintroduction of Krampus. Instead Santa Claus returns to his pagan roots and if the rest of the stories being told are any indication he is no longer alone. No longer the vanguard of Yuletide he is now joined by a veritable pantheon of the Christmas Season.

Santa Claus as he appears in Grant Morrison’s Klaus Comics

Yes, There is a Santa Claus

As the decades have passed Santa Claus has gained a Yule Bear, a magical shining Reindeer, Wildmen workers, a caring wife, his horn of plenty, wolves and armies of elves. He gained myths that touched the hearts of children for centuries, his origin story or “birth” has always been up for debate as a result Santa never ends because he also never began. He is as a force of nature, a constant.

He has no beginning no end, he is constantly changing both his past and his future. He is growing, evolving forever a part of the Neverending story of myth. This Christmas God, this “Divine Victory of the People” has carried many great things on his back whether toys or joys. His actions and stories have perpetuated and spread generosity and hope for the future more than perhaps we’ll ever know. This King of Yuletide, This Children’s God, This Wintertime Wildman, The one and only God of Christmas.

No single figure that has fed into Santa Claus can be singled out as the “True Santa” he is not simply an old god made new, he is his own entity. Yes, There is a Santa Claus. He is in every kind gesture that is made out of the goodness of our hearts, he is in the stories read by the fire, in the frosty air and frightful weather, in the shining eyes of children on Christmas morning, in every caroler and reveler. One wonders if without him there would even be a Christmas? Yes there is a Santa Claus and he is beloved.

Ohhh Yes… there truly is a Santa Claus. Thank the Gods for that.

Seeing Santa Claus by Charles M. Russell


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