Santa Claus

   This American name for the Christmas gift-bringer is increasingly used in England, generally in the shortened form 'Santa'. Early American settlers, being Puritans, rejected the English *Father Christmas, but later Dutch immigrants brought traditions about *St Nicholas, popularized through a poem by Clement Clark Moore, 'The Visit of Saint Nicholas' (1822), now more usually called 'The Night Before Christmas'. Moore describes the saint not as a bishop in a red cope, as in Holland, but as a fat man dressed in fur, driving a reindeer sleigh. He may well have been aware that in many European traditions, notably in Germany, St Nicholas is accompanied by fur-clad or gnome-like servants who carry presents for good children, but a birch for bad ones; such images might seem more appealing than a saint in religious garb. Illustrating Moore's poem in the 1860s, Thomas Nast used the colloquial Dutch 'Santa Claus' rather than the formal 'St Nicholas', and dressed him in a belted jacket and furry cap.
   During the rest of the 19th century, Santa was often shown in a red jacket but with blue knickerbockers, as befits a Dutchman; in the 20th century, an all-red outfit with white trimmings became the norm, especially after a Coca-Cola advertising campaign exploited his figure in 1931. The artist, the Swede Haddon Sundblom, also gave him a drooping tassled red cap like those associated with elves and gnomes; he may have been thinking of a Swedish Christmas gnome. Scandinavian influence also accounts for the elfin assistants often mentioned, and the home at the North Pole. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer dates from 1949, in a song by Johnny Marks.
   The name apparently reached England in the 1870s, to the puzzlement of observers, though the hanging-up of stockings was already an 'old' custom, at any rate in the northern counties (Henderson, 1866: 50). The first mention of the gift-bringer's name which we have traced is a letter to N&Q (5s:11 (1879), 66), where a Mr Edwin Lees says he has 'only lately been told' of a custom currently observed in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Devonshire, which he has not seen recorded anywhere:
   On Christmas Eve, when the inmates of a house in the country retire to bed, all those desirous of a present place a stocking outside the door of their bedroom, with the expectation that some mythical being called Santiclaus will fill the stocking or place something within it before morning. This is of course well known, and the master of the house does in reality place a Christmas gift secretly in each stocking; but the giggling girls in the morning, when bringing down their presents, affect to say that Santiclaus visited and filled the stockings in the night. From what region of the earth or air this benevolent Santiclaus takes flight I have not been able to ascertain.
   William Brockie noticed the same custom round Durham in the 1880s; he too was puzzled by the unfamiliar name and made the ingenious but mistaken guess that it was 'Santa Cruz, the Holy Cross' which brought the presents (Brockie, 1886: 92-3). By what channels this American feature reached Victorian England is at present unknown. One possibility (proposed anonymously in The Times of 22 December 1956) is a popular American story, The Christmas Stocking by Susan Warner, printed in London in 1854 and several times thereafter.
   See also *Father Christmas.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

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