Santa – the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
(A Visit From St Nicholas)

Ah yes, we’re gearing up for that time when children all over the world await the arrival of the big man with the beard and the red suit – and that’s all that need be said to know of whom we speak. All I have to do is recall the movie Miracle on 34th Street and a warm fuzzy glow warms my tummy. However, it’s worth noting that a few steps had to be taken in Santa’s evolution before we reached that point.

In Germany, St Nicholas actually comes on the night of December 5-6 when little boots are filled with all manner of goodies and left beside children’s beds. We follow this tradition in our own house as my son was born on December 6 and his mum is German. So far, thankfully, our four young ones have not interrogated us too severely as to why other children in the neighbourhood miss out on this early visit from St Nick.

Of course the real St Nicholas would probably scratch his head in puzzlement at the whole Santa tradition. I refer, of course, to St Nicholas of Myra. Born in Petara (in modern Turkey), he had a habit of putting coins in people’s shoes as a gift and it’s from this practice that Father Christmas originated. St Nick is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers (some say bankers, too), which takes a bit of the gloss off his story, but we can’t blame him for that.

The book One Night Stands with American History claims that it was 17th century Dutch settlers who brought Father Christmas to America. Based on the Dutch winter figure of Sinterklaas, he was  “tall, slender and very dignified” and without even a bristle to be found on his chin.

Incidentally, the Dutch Sinterklaas is said to be accompanied by his servant Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) carrying a big bag of goodies for all the boys and girls. Some songs suggest that the bag is also useful or bundling naughty children into and hauling them away.

Santa as drawn by Thomas Nast

Santa as drawn by Thomas Nast

Little did he know it, but Santa was in for a major makeover. Cartoonist Thomas Nast set the ball rolling when he added the beard and the rotund figure in the pages of Harper’s Weekly towards the end of the 19th century.

The story goes that Santa got his popular colour combination due to an advertising campaign for Coca Cola. It’s certainly true that the company helped popularise Santa amongst the general public. In 1931 Coca Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — they were so successful they ran right up to 1964.

For inspiration, Sundblom read Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas in which Moore describes Father Christmas as being warm, friendly and pleasantly plump. However, Santa appeared in a red coat long before Sundblom put brush to canvas.

Washington Irving (1783-1859), author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, wrote a Christmas story about giving and generosity in which he described Santa as a large man in a red suit smoking a pipe.

Jolly old Santa is now so popular that in America 20,000 rent-a-Santa’s are trained every year to maintain that happy demeanour (no matter what the provocation). They are also given such practical tips as to avoid eating garlic and, er, beans prior to visiting their young clients – the last thing one would want would be for Santa to leave more than one present behind…

But there was a darker side to St Nick. Early illustrations depict him as a bit of a tough cookie. He’s seen as stern, commanding, and bearing a birch rod, with which he would punish naughty children. This description ties in with that of the Viking god Odin, who is somewhat of a precursor to the modern Santa. According to myth, Odin rode his eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir in winter and gave out both gifts and punishments. Children would fill boots or stockings with treats for Sleipnir to feast on.

Neither of the above are very appealing forms of Santa (although I do have a soft spot for Billy Bob Thornton as the leering, booze-fuelled armed robber Father Christmas in the movie Bad Santa, which is absolutely hilarious).

If the notion of a bad, vengeful Father Christmas dishing out punishment to unsuspecting children is a little disconcerting then you’d better brace yourself…

Krampus and St Nicholas pay a memorable Christmas visit to a Viennese home in 1896

Krampus and St Nicholas pay a memorable Christmas visit to a Viennese home in 1896

In parts of Austria, Germany, Hungary, and some neighboring countries, a hairy, evil beast called Krampus replete with horns, hooves, a long tongue, and sharp claws is said to terrify children at Christmas. Since the 17th century he has accompanied Santa on his annual gift-giving trip.

Naughty boys and girls beware – Krampus’s job is to dish out punishment to them. He carries a large wicker basket on his back and kidnaps misbehaving children and brings them to Hell.

Never have the lines: ‘You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why’ been more apt.

Give me Billy Bob’s Santa any day. Happy Christmas.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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19 Responses to Santa – the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

  1. nancyhvest says:

    Some things I knew and some I didn’t. Thanks for the entertaining and informative read. 🙂

  2. You’re welcome Nancy. Glad you liked it 🙂

  3. roberthorvat says:

    Argh. Nothing on Christmas brandy ? Next year 😉 BTW Bad Santa, all the way !

  4. I grew up with this tradition and it’s in one of my books, too. 🙂

  5. Lindy Moone says:

    Reblogged this on Belly-up! and commented:
    Thank you to David Lawlor for a year of great blog posts about the history we were never taught in school. (You know: the interesting stuff!)
    And to all a good night…

  6. Traci lawrence says:

    Another wonderful post! I wasn’t aware of 90% of these facts!

  7. My son played the “Santa is watching” card with his 6 & 3 year-old daughters this year. It worked for him as it works for so many parents – even without Krampus. Merry Christmas, David!

  8. That’s funny, Carol. I just used it myself this morning with two of my girls who were bickering. Who needs Krampus indeed! Happy Christmas

  9. What a wonderful post, David. I’m going to send this around to my children (now grown up). One of them has just had a child and might enjoy seeing this as they set their future traditions. Of course, there is the matter of milk and cookies. Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas.

  10. Hi David … Love this … would love to re-publish on my website next week if that’s okay … full credit and all that.

    Hope all is well

    Mary Gottschalk 515 633 9258 515 240-8619 (cell)

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