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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2426

Santa Claus - Who is he?

By Para Kumarasamy

Soon it will be Christmas time, children and elders will be excited over the coming of the Santa Claus - jovial old man with a long beard, who will bring gifts to good children. Most children are made to believe that Santa in red suit, trimmed with white fur rides in his flying sleigh, pulled by reindeers comes on the Christmas Eve. He fills their stockings with gifts, which they wanted for Christmas.

Who is this Santa Claus?

Some people attribute the origin of Santa Claus to the legendary St. Nicholas, who was born in Patara, a village in what is now Turkey, in a wealthy Christian family. He became the Bishop of Myra. He was well known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need and for his love for the children. He had given gifts to children anonymously throwing them through the windows of their houses and helped unmarried woman with dowry, so that she may get married! It is said that he had performed several miracles and also helped sailors at sea and saved them from drowning and brought back to life three murdered theological students!!

Roman Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, arrested him, had imprisoned him and later exiled him. He died on December 6th in AD343, in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church. His tomb in Myra became a popular place for pilgrimage. Because of many wars in this region and also of the religious and commercial advantages, Italian cities wanted to remove the relics of St. Nicholas to their country. It is said that in 1087, some sailors removed his buried bones to Bari and built a church there. St. Nicholas became the Saint of Bari and today pilgrims and tourists visit Bari’s great Basilica di San Nicola.

The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration as St. Nicholas day. Sailors claiming St. Nicholas as their patron saint had carried stories about him to various seaports in Europe. As his popularity spread during the middle Ages, he became the patron saint of the people in countries with sea ports such as Italy, Sicily Greece, Netherlands etc. There were about 2000 churches built after his name. In Europe, December 6th is still celebrated as St. Nicholas day, a day for giving gifts to children.

Even though St. Nicholas was a popular saint, because the Saint’s life was so unreliably documented, in 1969 Pope Paul VI ordered the feast of St. Nicholas to be removed from the official Roman Catholic calendar.

Many religious historians and experts believe that there is no valid evidence to indicate that St. Nicholas ever existed as a human. In fact there are several indications that his life story was simply recycled from the Pagan Gods, which the people worshiped before Christianity. Many ancient Pagan Gods and symbols were similarly Christianised in the early centuries of the church. His legends seem to have been mainly created out of the myths attributed to Greek God Poseidon, Roman God Neptune and Teutonic God Hold Nickar. Russians believed that he is the heir to the God of the harvest, Mikoula.

When the church adopted the persona of St. Nicholas, they adopted Poseidon’s title as a sailor. They also picked up his last name from God Hold Nickar. Various temples of Poseidon became shrines of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas also adopted some of the qualities of the "Grandmother" or Befana from Italy. She was said to have filled children’s stockings with gifts. Her shrine at Bari was also converted to a shrine of St. Nicholas.

Mythologist Helene Adeline Guerber traced Santa to the Norse God Thor in her work Myths of Northern Lands. Even today in Sweden, Thor represents Santa Claus. Most other Santa researchers also believe that the trait of Santa was borrowed from Norse (Scandinavian) God Thor. Accordingly, Thor was the God of the peasants and the common people. He was a friendly, jovial old man, of heavy build with long beard. His element was fire and his colour red. He drove in a chariot drawn by two white goats. He was fighting the giants of ice and snow and thus became the Yule God. He lived in the North Pole, where he had his palace among the icebergs! The fireplace in every home was sacred to him and he is said to come down through the chimney in to his element Fire!! He is the most celebrated and worshiped Pagan God and a day in the week was named after him as "Thursday" (Thor’s day).

Father Christmas, which is the British name for Santa Claus also, has his roots in Paganism. In the middle of the 5th century AD, during the times of Anglo – Saxons in England, it was customary in winter for an elderly man from the community to dress in furs and visit people in their houses. He was treated as the "Old Winter" or "King Frost" with food and drinks. People thought that if they treated him well, he carried away the bad sprit of winter with him and they will not suffer much in the cold winter. This tradition became strong during the invasion by the Vikings from Scandinavia between the 8th to 11th century. They brought their mid winter traditions with their God Odin, who is traditionally represented by a portly elderly man with white beard. The images of Father Christmas before 1880s showed him as a well nourished bearded man in green fur lined robe.

The Dutch, when they went to America took their St. Nicholas legend as Sinter Klaas. Sinter Klaas was Americanised as Santa Claus and he gave up his Bishops apparel and was pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green coat.

Santa Claus appeared in various coloured costumes as he gradually became amalgamated with the figure of Father Christmas and God Thor. Present day Santa Claus was created from these figures in America in the 19th century. Thomas Nast, a famous cartoonist added red robe and white beard with a sack of toys in his cartoon in 1881. In 1822 Clement Clark Moore wrote a Christmas poem, "A visit from St. Nicholas" to be read out to his children and later it was published and became very popular. Christmas cards published in 1885 showed him in red robe instead of green robe. God Thor’s goats driven chariot was replaced by reindeers and a sleigh. The festivities were also moved away from the Pagan background to a more Christian date of the supposed birth date of Jesus Christ!

Today’s Santa Claus with red coat and cap (which the Coca Cola Company used for its advertisements in 1930s) has nothing to do with religion or the past Pagan Gods; he is the symbol of Globalised Big Business.

- Asian Tribune -

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