Here Comes Santa!
By Many Names and Traditions, Santa Claus Holds Universal Appeal
As he settles down for a long winter’s nap after a busy night, Santa Claus’ work is not yet done in some parts of the world where the magical character is known by other names amid different holiday traditions.
Wheeling historian Jeanne Finstein appeared at Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library Tuesday to present the story of Santa Claus. Finstein shared information that she and Judi Hendrickson of Wheeling collected on similar legends and Christmas-related traditions around the globe.
“Other countries don’t necessarily have the same beliefs,” Finstein noted.
The roots of Santa Claus go back to St. Nicholas, who was born in Myra, Turkey, and became famous for giving his inheritance to the poor. Many miracles and customs such as secret gift giving are attributed to him.
Finstein said the tradition of hanging Christmas stockings on the fireplace stemmed from the story of St. Nicholas secretly dropping gold coins down a chimney to help three poor sisters who lacked dowries. According to legend, the coins landed in the girls’ stockings that were hanging on the hearth to dry.
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Greece and Russia, she said. He also is the patron of children and sailors for miracles that he performed. The day of his death, Dec. 6, is recognized as his feast day. On that day, sailors in an Italian port city carry a statue of St. Nicholas out to sea to bless the waters, she related.
While Christmas is now a central celebration for Christians and is commemorated widely in the secular world, such was not always the case at various points in history. During the Protestant Reformation, theologian Martin Luther tried to curb celebrations related to St. Nicholas.
Under King Charles I, the English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas in 1645 and abolished other religious festivals, Finstein said. After Oliver Cromwell seized power in England, his government stayed in session on Dec. 25, she added. In America, the Puritans outlawed Christmas in Boston.
Despite those efforts, Christmas observances were revived and expanded over the years. In the United Kingdom, Father Christmas, or Old Man Christmas, delivers gifts. Initially, holiday festivities focused on adults with feasting and merrymaking, but became a more child-centered celebration in the Victorian era, she said. In the 19th century, Father Christmas took on more Santa-like attributes.
In the United States, 19th-century New Yorkers were celebrating Christmas, as Washington Irving chronicled in his 1809 Knickerbocker history, Finstein said. Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” for his own children in 1822; it was published anonymously the next year, but finally attributed to Moore in 1837, she said.
The depiction of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man can be traced to Thomas Nast’s 1863 illustration. The now-iconic image of a rosy-cheeked, smiling Santa dates from the 1930s when Haddon Sundblom created an illustration for a Coca-Cola advertisement, she said.
In France, Pere Noel, wearing a hooded red cloak, brings toys after Christmas Eve Mass. However, she said, he may be accompanied by an ominous figure carrying a whip to beat badly-behaved children.
This character, clad in dark robes, has a sinister face with a long, unkempt beard and totes a wicker basket to carry away bad youngsters.
Another disturbing legend tells of Krampus, a half-goat, half-demon, that “punishes children who have misbehaved,” she said. Krampus wears brown or black clothing and has a hairy body, cloven hooves, horns and a long tongue. He also carries a basket or bag to take naughty children to Hell.
In the Basque region of Spain, a character called Olentzero carves wooden toys, but also cuts the throats of bad children, she said. The Yule Cat eats children who haven’t worked hard enough in Iceland.
More cheerful holiday figures include Ded Moroz, a Slavic character in Russia. Also known as Old Man Frost or Grandfather Frost, he wears a full-length fur coat and felt boots, has a long white beard and carries a magical white staff.
After the Russian Revolution, Christmas celebrations were discouraged, so Ded Moroz began bringing gifts on New Year’s Eve, she said.
Snegurochka, or the Snow Maiden, accompanies Ded Moroz. In a folk tale, a childless Russian peasant couple makes a snow doll that comes to life. The snow girl’s heart is unable to love, but when her heart warms, she melts.
In Finland, Joulupukki, or Yule Goat, knocks on doors rather than sliding down chimneys, she related. Porridge with butter is left out for a short character called Nisse or Tomte in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
Sinterklaas rides a white horse in the Netherlands and carries a big red book with a list of nice and naughty children. On Dec. 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, youngsters leave their wooden clogs outside along with hay and carrots for Sinterklaas’ horse, she said.
In other observances, Sinterklaas travels in a steamship with Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. However, Finstein said the racist aspects have been downplayed in recent decades, with Zwarte Piet depicted as a chimney sweep instead of a slave.
A tradition in Italy involves La Befana, the Christmas Witch, an old woman who is said to fly around on Epiphany Eve to deliver gifts. According to legend, the Magi invited her to accompany them on their journey to see the Christ Child, but she had too much housework to do. She changed her mind later, but was unable to find the Wise Men or the baby Jesus. In another version, King Herod killed the woman’s son so she finds the baby Jesus and gives her son’s belongings to the infant, Finstein said.
In Iran, Amu Nowruz brings gifts to children in spring. He and his wife, Grandma Frost, meet only once a year, she said.
Regarding other aspects of the holiday season, Finstein commented, “Christmas has become a cultural event in many places of the world.”
For instance, in Mexico, the Night of the Radishes is observed on Dec. 23, featuring a special variety of radish used for impressive displays of carved vegetables, she said. In Wales, a custom known as “caroling with a dead horse” involves people dressing up with a horse’s skull and singing from house to house to bring good luck from Christmas into January.
Spider webs symbolize good luck in Ukraine. Finstein said this custom derived from a tale of a poor widow and her children who had no resources to decorate a fir tree in their cold, damp hut. Spiders covered the tree with beautiful webs overnight and brought good fortune to the widow.
A German custom entails tucking a glass pickle ornament in a Christmas tree. The first child to find the hidden pickle receives a special gift.
For the Christmas bowl in Greece, a sprig of basil is wrapped around a small wooden cross and is placed in a shallow wooden bowl, she said. The cross is then used to sprinkle holy water in each room of the house.
Greece also is the land of the Kallikantzaroi, gremlins that are more mischievous than evil, who sneak down the chimney, she added.
On a culinary note, Christmas became associated with Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan about 40 years ago, with thousands of buckets of chicken being sold during the holidays, she said. Another custom in Japan is ordering a Christmas sponge cake months in advance.
In Great Britain, several traditions relate to the Christmas pudding, which must be stirred clockwise while making a wish. She said symbolic items that may be added to the mix include a coin for wealth in the coming year, a ring to bring good luck in marriage and a thimble to ensure good luck in life.
Boiled pig snouts are served in Latvia, along with peas and beans to bring riches. Musicians called Mummers dress up as animals and travel from house to house to sing and dance.
In Greenland, Kiviak is a delicacy of auks placed in a seal and sealed with grease. A large rock is placed on top of the concoction, which is left to ferment for months. Another treat features raw whale meat stuffed into a seal skin.