Fact or Santa-sy

santa-sySo – Santa Claus, St Nicholas, Father Christmas – who is he and what has he got to do with a celebration of the birth of someone who died centuries before he was born?

As Christmas rapidly approaches I began pondering this very topic lately. Someone I know recently complained that Christmas is becoming “too American”. This also led me to think of how great a degree of impact our colonial cousins had on the current popular image of the festive period and its celebrations. I will share those thoughts and findings with you all here.

I must admit I find it rather bemusing that so many parents insist on perpetuating convoluted and contradictory myths about Santa Claus to their children, admit it was all a lie a few years later and then expect their children to be truthful when they grow up

As soon as you start to mix in the religious element, it all gets much more complex. If you had asked people a few generations ago to draw a picture of something associated with Christmas, you may have been presented with a representation of a stable, a manger, some shepherds, probably a star, but these days it is more likely you would get a jolly fat man with a red coat, some elves with pointy hats, and for some inexplicable reason, quite possibly a penguin.

In around August of 5 BC some people saw a comet in the sky over Palestine, one that had been observed before and has been seen again several times since, but superstitious people took this as a sign that something an old book had said would happen one day had just happened. A rather successful cult built up around this.

About 400 years later a monk called Nicholas died in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. Later on some other people dug up his body and took the bones around various places saying they were important to the cult (that sort of thing was a bit trendy at the time).

One of the bones ended up in Holland where preexisting Germanic folk tales involving elves and sky chariots got intermingled with stories of Saint Nicholas or, as the Dutch called him, Sinterklaas.

More time passed and Dutch settlers arrived in America bringing some of their folk traditions with them. Sinterklaas later became anglicised as Santa Claus.

Somewhere along the way this got mixed up with the anniversary of the beginning of the cult, the date of which was retrospectively moved to about 4 and a half years after the comet sighting to take over from celebrations of an old Roman winter festival called Saturnalia.

Because of this change of date Christmas became associated with wintry things, and the Turkish monk who died about 1600 years ago is, according to the modern representation, now apparently living at the North Pole (since the 19th century American invention of that idea) and his image as so popularly presented now (jolly fat man with glasses, a white beard, wearing a red coat with white fur trim) was largely invented in the mid 20th century by the Coca-Cola company for an advert.

Eating turkey at Christmas is a very recent tradition in the UK, only really in post WW2 times, as prior to that goose was more popular. I did briefly consider that turkey’s popularity may have had a connection with Saint Nick’s birthplace, but then concluded it was probably far more likely to be a cultural borrowing from our friends across the Pond, who have it at a slightly earlier time of year, for their Thanksgiving meals.

A little bit of digging online tells me that King Edward VII is credited with making it fashionable to have a Christmas turkey, although I would guess most of those who slavishly follow this tradition every year would be blissfully unaware of that.

Quite how most of the iconography of Christmas is relevant to a Palestinian who died centuries before St Nicholas, in a country too hot for snow, is a mystery, yet we present all this collection of assorted and disjointed imagery to our children as a wholesome family story and expect them to trust us?

PS: much of the above is written with tongue very firmly in cheek.

Whatever you believe in, and whatever you enjoy about Christmas, have a merry one.


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