Monday, 6 December 2010

Santa Claus - you're Nicked!

Speaking of saints, today is widely celebrated across Europe as St Nicholas' Day. Unsurprisingly however, many historians and experts in folklore believe that there is no valid evidence to indicate that St. Nicholas ever existed as a human.

In fact, there are quite a few indicators that his life story was simply recycled from those of Pagan gods. Many other ancient gods and goddesses were similarly Christianised in the early centuries of the Church - including myths associated with Ishtar (Easter), Isis (Virgin Mary) and Dionysus (Jesus).

The Sailor
The Nicholas legends seems to have been mainly created out of myths attributed to the Greek God Poseidon, the Roman God Neptune, and the equivalent Teutonic God Hold Nickar.

When the church created the persona of St. Nicholas, they adopted Poseidon's title "the Sailor." They seem to have picked up his last name from Nickar. Various temples of Poseidon became shrines of St. Nicholas, and to this day he is the patron saint of sailors.

The Old Woman
St. Nicholas also adopted some of the qualities of "The Grandmother" or Befana from Italy, herself descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strina. La Vecchia (the Old Woman), or La Strega (the Witch), was said to have filled children's stockings with gifts in a similar fashion to the latter-day St Nicholas. Her celebrations were too raucous for the early church, however, so they had to supplant her.

Her shrine at Bari was converted into a shrine to St. Nicholas, and the Christian church created a fictional life history for their new saint. He was given the name Hagios Nikolaos (otherwise known as St. Nicholas of Myra, in what is now Turkey), but how he was supposed to have transferred allegiance to Bari is unclear.

Saint to Santa
It took many centuries of evolution through different emerging converted Christian nations, each with its own set of myths and legends involving gift-giving at the turn of the year (Saturnalia or Solstice), before Santa Claus (from the Dutch Sinterklaas) came into being, and a thousand cheesy legends were born.

In Germany, St. Nicholas is also known as Klaasbuur, Sunnercla, Burklaas, Bullerklaas, and Rauklas, and in eastern Germany he is also known as "Shaggy Goat", "Ash Man" and "Rider" and is more reflective of earlier Norse pagan influences.

In many countries he is accompanied by a dark-skinned assistant, variously called Knecht Ruprecht, Pere Fouettard, Hoseker or "Black Peter". Presumably this character was later "cleaned-up" to become the progenitor of the elves.

Tales of his achievements, his traditions, and even the day on which he is recognised, change from country to country - until his most popular association with Xmas Day, which mainly evolved thanks to popular Victorian revival of the celebrations, and blended the European stories with the native British "Father Christmas" (who has completely separate origins).

More myths about Santa Claus/St Nicholas:
  • His cheery red and white outfit has nothing to do with Coca-Cola (despite being coincidentally in their own corporate colours), but they did use his image in the early part of the 20th century as a way of off-loading a chilled summer drink in the middle of winter.
  • Nicholas is alleged in Christian legend to have attended the first council of Nicea; however, his name does not appear on lists of attending bishops, nor anywhere else.

Read more about Old St Nick


  1. Its interesting how popular culture has latched onto one, or more, of these many creations in order to celebrate the birth of Christ, sell merchandise and controlling children's seasonal clocks.

    1. I am sure La Strega would have approved of Furbies and robotic puppies - they are quite demonic creations, with or without batteries!


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