Ever wonder why a fat guy named Santa Claus, with a workshop on the North Pole wherein elves make toys, brings gifts to children all around the world on Christmas using a reindeer-powered sleigh? Well I'm glad you asked.

The historical predecessors of the Anglo-American version of Santa Claus (and Christmas folklore overall) are a real historical figure – St. Nicholas of Myra – and character from Dutch folklore named Sinterklaas. Catholic veneration of St. Nicholas emphasized his famous generosity toward the poor, not merely feeding and clothing them but giving them gifts.
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Sinterklaas was a mythical winter figure in German-speaking Europe dating back to the Dark Ages (with many characteristics of his appearance borrowed from Odin). Eventually the legend of Sinterklaas became intertwined with St. Nicholas, whose similar background – both were Bishops famously generous with gifts – resulted in Sinterklaas making a tradition of bringing gifts on St. Nick's feast day (December 6). So why haven't we exchanged gifts already?

Enter a similar character in British folklore, Father Christmas. Daddy C was a rotund, white-bearded older man with a green robe who symbolized the spirit of Christmas in a secular sense. It is worth noting that Christmas, from a religious perspective, was considered a very minor holiday until…well, we'll get there in a minute. But for the latter half of the 18th Century and the dawn of the 19th, the London Times on Dec. 25 only bothered mentioning Christmas about half the time. It just wasn't a big deal.

The people who made Santa Claus as we know him today are largely the same people who made Christmas as we know it: Charles Dickens in Britain and little-known Clement Clarke Moore in the United States (Washington Irving had created an "American" Santa in 1808 – a fat Dutch sailor – tongue in cheek as a way to mock the Dutch, so that doesn't quite count). Of course you know Dickens, although you might not realize how instrumental A Christmas Carol was in making Christmas a major cultural holiday in Britain. You don't necessarily know CC Moore, but a poem he wrote for his children, published at the urging of his friends and family in 1823, is well known. "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" begins:

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,

This poem created and established 99% of what we "know" about Santa Claus today – the sleigh pulled by 9 reindeer (which Moore named), landing on the roof and entering down the chimney, and the sack of toys made in his workshop. Moore used the name St. Nicholas, but the character he created was essentially an amalgam of Father Christmas (who was responsible for moving the gifting from St. Nicholas' feast day to Dec. 24), St. Nicholas, and Sinterklaas.

Before Moore and Dickens, images of Santa Claus existed but varied considerably by region. These authors began the process of standardizing the character and his narrative. Appearance-wise, Santa also began to take on a single recognizable form. He wore a robe like Father Christmas, but it was red (the color of Sinterklaas' bishop's robes) instead of green. He had a big white beard and a large belly like both the Sinterklaas and Father Christmas characters before him, as this appearance was considered to make him more "jolly." Political cartoonist Thomas Nast's depictions of Santa in this form cemented the image and it has varied little since the mid-19th Century (Nast also created, in 1886, the idea of a workshop on the North Pole. No one is quite sure where the idea of elves originated.)

The idea that Santa was created by the Coca-Cola company is an urban legend, although early 20th Century Coke advertising certainly did popularize the character even more. The fact that he wore Coke colors didn't hurt.

Finally, in the 1930s, Montgomery Ward gave away millions of coloring books to children every year as a promotion, so they tasked one of their advertising copywriters, Robert May, with creating their own coloring book.
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They saw this as a cheaper alternative to buying coloring books from vendors. He created the story of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" based on the reindeer in Moore's poem. The coloring book was wildly popular and May's brother wrote a song based on its story, recorded in 1939 by Gene Autry and immediately becoming a mega-hit. The stop-motion animated Rudolph TV special created in 1964 elaborated the story considerably but retained most elements of May's original storyline.

If you ever win money at trivia or on a game show for knowing any of this, I get 10% off the top. That means before taxes, people.


  • Nnnnope, nnnnope, as I recall, it's all in the Bible. Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 8, Verse 9: "Then did the eve of the Christ-child's birth arrive, and with it, the jolly traveler from frosty climes known as 'Santa,' red-clothed and fleshy, bearded with rime, and yea, to him were given what was due: cookies unleavened but rich with chocolate, and milk of the spotless cow. And, pleased with these offerings, the traveler left behind him those things, elf-made and most good, at which they were gladdened: the jeweled necklace that Mary had been passive-aggressively hinting about all during the long sojourn towards Bethlehem, the Chargers jersey that Joseph had sworn he would give his left nut for, and the latest Madden Football for the Child who, though not yet arrived, had thrown an in utero tantrum over. So all were joyous in these gladsome times, and later the shepherds came with booze."

  • Gene Autry was the Christmas song man:

    He wrote and recorded 'Here Comes Santa Claus' – 1948
    Rudolph was in 1949 (not 1939; typo)
    He recorded 'Frosty the Snowman' in 1950 (Peter Cottontail for Easter!)
    'Up on the Housetop' – 1952

    Several of these songs were re-recorded and re-released in multiple years (especially Rudolph)

    The man made big $ off of Christmas. Seemed like a genuinely good guy too.


  • Which is why the only Christmas songs that ever get played are the ones the Baby Boomers heard while growing up.

    Because as everyone knows, if it happened to a Baby Boomer twice it's automatically a "Great American Tradition".

  • Why no love for Krampus? That way I get to rant about Catholic syncretism AND false monotheism.

    Anyone…? Bueller…?

  • Here's what you're after:

    Side note on St. Nick. One of the things he lobbed through windows (good thing they didn't have glass and lawyers in those days, the PI would've been a bitch) was money for one specific purpose to help provide a dowry so the girls could get married. So there's one tradition we'll let stay dead shall we :)

  • As another historical aside. One of the things that helped Thomas Cromwell — great-great-grand uncle to Oliver — come a cropper with Henry VIII was his desire to really overhaul the church and the social traditions. He literally wanted to cancel Christmas. This nearly caused a revolt amongst the people. Henry saw sense and it was his desire to reform — and take control — the church not raze the social order to that extent.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    In Orthodox Christianity, Christmas is not really a big deal.
    Easter is the BIG deal!!!

    I suppose it's because Jesus being born wasn't that big a deal – everyone's is born.
    But how many people get resurrected?

    Siddown, ya's Dominionist Evangelical Christianist twits, ya's!

    What makes you think that Jesus and God want a bunch of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and/or homophobic @$$holes sitting anywhere near either of their hands? They (He?) might smite you with them, but you ain't sitting on the right, the left – or in front, or behind, neither.
    You'd be better off praying for asbestos underwear.

    Oh, and talking about C.C. Moore, here's a neighborhood park in NY City, where his families home once stood:

    I grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, NY City, and this was our local playground, where the slides and swings were, where we flew kites, played handball (Basketball had yet to be big yet, in the 60's), and where there was a small shallow cement pool for kids, where we could cool off in the summer, and ice-skate in the winter.
    Moore grew up in a home that was long gone, but he didn't write his classic poem there.

    Ahh, memories, memories…

  • Just curious, do you know how Christmas "travelled" from the US and UK to other European countries? I know it's a big deal for my family in Germany/Austria as well.

  • J Dryden FTW!!

    It's Canon now! Time for a new catechism! Notify your crazy uncle louie and grandma that it's time for the REVIVAL.

  • OK, this was informative and interesting, Ed, but where are the dick jokes? The expletives? This coulda been an op-ed in the NY Times or WaPo without changing a word.

    And shoulda, if only to make your name (and blog) better known.

    Is it worthwhile submitting stuff to those papers? Maybe not. Anyway, a fun change from the necessarily downbeat political screeds.

  • One thing that most people hardly notice these days, and you leave out here, is that the Santa Clause in Twas the Night Before Christmas is like an elf himself, with a "miniature" sleigh and "tiny" reindeer. That certainly makes more sense in terms of landing on roofs and sliding down chimneys.

  • @major

    I was born in 1946 which is the leading edge of the Boomers which depending on your sources runs to 1964 or 1961. Assuming you don’t remember much before you are 4 or 5 let’s start with ~1950 and lets assume your growing up time is till you are about 15 or 16 which matches up with about 1980.

    So the target window is about 1950 to 1980 for the publishing recording of our Boomer dominated Christmas songs we are so tired of…(your position)

    Let’s look at the Top dozen Christmas songs and see when they were popularized:

    According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, these are the Top 12 (of the Top25) most-performed “Holiday” songs for the first five years of the 21st Century:

    1.) The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) – Mel Tormé, Robert Wells – 1944 recorded by Nat ‘King’ Cole – 1946

    2.) Santa Claus Is Coming To Town – Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie – 1934 – recorded by Eddie Cantor and sold 400,000 before Christmas

    3.) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin – sung by Judy Garland in 1944 in the movie ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ and later redone by Frank Sinatra.

    4.) Winter Wonderland – Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith – written in 1934 Johnny Mercer to it to #4 in 1946

    5.) White Christmas – Irving Berlin – written in 1940 and performed by Bing Crosby on Christmas Day 1941 just 18 days after Pearl Harbor. Recorded in 1942 and has sold over 50 million.

    6.) Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne – written in 1945 and recorded by Vaughn Monroe. Became a #1 hit in 1946. Because of the seasonal lyrics it is considered a Christmas song.

    7.) Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer – Johnny Marks 1949 – Gene Autry w/ the #1 hit in 1949.

    8.) Jingle Bell Rock – Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe – 1957, Bobby Helms with the definitive recording that year charting #13.

    9.) I’ll Be Home For Christmas – Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram – 1943 – Bing Crosby released it that year and it went to #3. The most requested song at USO shows during WW2 from that point on.

    10.) Little Drummer Boy – Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry Simeone – 1941 but not popularized until 1955.

    11.) Sleigh Ride – Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish – music 1948 and lyrics 1950

    12.) It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year – Edward Pola, George Wyle – 1963 and recorded by Andy Williams.

    So there you have it, the 12 most popular Christmas songs of 2000 – 2005…

    Numbers 1 through 6 definitely NOT Boomer.

    Number 7 technically not by my definition, but close enough – Boomer

    Number 8 – Boomer

    Number 9 – NOT Boomer

    Number 10 – HALF Boomer

    Number 11 – HALF Boomer

    Number 12 – Boomer

    So eight out of the most popular Christmas songs (in the US) are NOT Boomer memory material and most especially the Top 6.

    Hate us for a lot of reasons, but please leave Christmas music out of it.


  • As to Santa's elves, remember that "Twas the Night before Christmas" refers to Santa himself as a "right jolly old elf," so it makes sense that he'd live with other elves. What's curious to me is that so much lore depicts the elves as Santa's "helpers," not much different than unpaid servants who happen to love what they do, while depicting Santa as some sort of magical human who governs them. Make of that what you will.

  • What you said about 9 reindeer in the poem didn't ring true, so I read the poem again. It says "8 tiny reindeer," and he gives the 8 names.

  • hey, what about, "Grandma got run over by a reindeer." i know that is "new", lol. but i find that one very funny. i love it. so "off".

    but isn't anyone going to talk about why we celebrate this "time" of the year. i mean, what pagan tradition the Church usurped. the Pagans were "Lightyears" ahead of the Catholic/Christians when it came to Christmas, lol.

    so when they talk about "Old Time Religion", i naturally think of the Pagans. the return of the Light from the Dark "evil" unlit days of winter.

    don't know how people can live in the Northern Circle/with so little light for so long.

  • Minor correction: There were 8 reindeer mentioned in Moore's poem, not 9. Rudolph is entirely a product of 1930s America.

  • apropos of today's theme, a joke I got forwarded to me by a lawyer friend. think readers here,not excluding Ed, will enjoy:

    Dear Santa,
    How are you? How is Mrs. Claus? I hope everyone, from the reindeer to the elves, is fine. I have been a very good boy this year. I would like an X-Box 360 with Call of Duty IV and an iPhone 4 for Christmas.
    I hope you remember that come Christmas Day.
    Merry Christmas,
    Timmy Jones

    Dear Timmy,
    Thank you for your letter. Mrs. Claus, the reindeer and the elves are all
    fine and thank you for asking about them. Santa is a little worried all the
    time you spend playing video games and texting. Santa wouldn't want you to get fat. Since you have indeed been a good boy, I think I'll bring you
    something you can go outside and play with.
    Merry Christmas,
    Santa Claus

    Mr. Claus,
    Seeing that I have fulfilled the "naughty vs. nice" contract, set by you I might add, I feel confident that you can see your way clear to granting me what I have asked for. I certainly wouldn't want to turn this joyous season into one of litigation. Also, don't you think that a jibe at my weight coming from an overweight man who goes out once a year is a bit trite?
    Tim Jones

    Mr. Jones,
    While I have acknowledged you have met the "nice" criteria, need
    I remind you that your Christmas list is a request and in no way is it a
    guarantee of services provided. Should you wish to pursue legal action,
    well that is your right. Please know, however, that my attorneys have been on retainer ever since the Burgermeister Meisterburger incident and will be
    more than happy to take you on in open court. Additionally, the exercise I
    eluded to will not only improve your health, but also improve you social
    skills and potentially help clear up a complexion that looks like the
    bottom of the Burger King fry bin most days.
    Very Truly Yours,
    S Claus

    Now look here Fat Man,
    I told you what I want and I expect you to bring it. I was attempting to be polite about this but you brought my looks and my friends into this. Now you just be disrespecting me. I'm about to tweet my boys and we're gonna be waiting for your fat ass and I'm taking my game console, my game, my phone, and whatever else I want. WHATEVER I WANT, MAN!

    Listen Pizza Face,
    Seriously??? You think a dude that breaks into every house in the world on
    one night and never gets caught sweats a skinny g-banger wannabe? "He sees you when you're sleeping; He knows when you're awake". Sound familiar, genius? You know what kind of resources I have at my disposal.
    I got your sh*t wired, Jack. I go all around the world and see ways to
    Hurt people that if I described them right now, you'd throw up your Totino's pizza roll all over the carpet of your mom's basement. You're not getting what you asked for, but I'm still stopping by your crib to stomp a mud hole in your a** and then walk it dry. Chew on that, Petunia.
    S Clizzy

    Dear Santa,
    Bring me whatever you see fit. I'll appreciate anything.

    That's what I thought, you little bastard.

  • @bb

    I think the main problem is, there were only something like 10 Christmas songs ever written and after I've heard them over and over again starting sometime in late October I'm ready to claw my face off.

  • mel in oregon says:

    even though our family isn't christian (gave up on it a long time ago), we give gifts on 12-25. i think it's a good idea, even though in america it's just an excuse for stores to sell a lot of shit people don't need, & have a fat bottom line. the other thing is, it's good for kids to have a little fun & innocence in this day & age when everything else is going to hell in a bucket. santa claus, the easter bunny, & fireworks on july 4 are all good things even though they are all make believe.

  • @bb
    The songs that are pre-boomer would have been played while boomers were young, no? And since they came from before they can remember, they are clearly "traditional" and therefore good/better/best. The statment didn't say songs that were recorded while boomers were growning up it said played. See the XKCD link provided above.

    "modern" contenders for most annoying Christmas song:
    All I Want for Christmas is You (Mariah Carey)
    Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer (Some morning show DJ, probably)
    and by far the winner…

  • Yeah, I know all about the Sinterklaas shit. As duck-billed placelot says, you cannot mention Sinterklaas without bringing up the ever-charming story of Zwarte Piet. I was recently in the NL and brought back much Zwarte Piet for friends–you just cannot believe how racist it is. All my Dutch friends say "what?" They don't get it because, you see, they didn't KEEP the slaves they transported for the Americas, they just made money off the shipping. But Sinterklaas is not fat in the NL. He's pretty thin, really. Sometimes even kind of pathetic-looking. Anyone looking for a hilarious rendition of the Sinterklaas legend should look no further than David Sedaris.

    And Kong, if you hate the traditional Christmas songs, my suggestion to you is to write all your favorite current artists and beg them, BEG them not to do renditions of traditional Christmas songs. Only when contemporary artists quit doing their Christmas album with their version of the songs will those songs die out.

  • Nitpick on the second paragraph: Ed makes it sound like Sinterklaas and St. Nick were unrelated originally, but only later became "intertwined". Sinterklaas was already a form of the St. Nick legend (the "Klaas" part of the name is a reduced form of the Dutch form of "Nicholas"). Now, Sinterklaas was a syncretic mix of Christian St Nick stuff and older Norse stuff as Ed points out, and the later re-merging certainly counts as "intertwining". But the two were never entirely independent, just two threads of the broader legend.

  • Criticisms of my analysis are correct if you accept the 'Baptize the traditional as good/better/best', but I always thought the main bitch against Boomers culturally is that we promoted OUR stuff as the best 'evah' not that we were in some way traditional.

    In fact, our anti-traditional position (you know 'the conterculture') was the '60s Boomer over hyped calling card, no?

    Fstar Bing Crosby, power to the people! (that's what I remember.)


  • I never thought I'd say this but bb has it exactly right.

    Yeah, Jex, those songs were played when we were young.

    They were also played when you were young, nicht wahr?

    Oh wait, yer thinking – they were played before I was born.

    Well, before we 1946 models were born, too.

    And, by the way, I fucking hate that fucking little fucking drummer fucking boy fucking song.


  • Re Christmas Songs driving you nutso, my wife and I often comment to store clerks that the constant playing of the songs must drive them nuts. Almost to a person they claim that after a while it all fades into the background.

    A friend sold ice cream from a truck that cruised neighborhoods – fond memories, eh? He claims the music broadcast from the truck (always some horrible ear worm meme that is played at 3/4 speed and through a bad speaker) also faded into the background.

    Go figure.

  • My ex-husband collected Christmas music. Do you know how many Surf Christmas, Bagpipe Christmas, Soul Christmas, 50s Bop Christmas and other monstrosities are roaming the earth? LOTS. Santa Has a Brand New Bag, people. Thank your lucky stars you only had to deal with the pops.

  • The only trivia contest in which I regularly participate is pub quiz, and the prizes usually suck. But if you would like me to mail you 10% of a beer koozie I'd be happy to do so.

  • pretty good breakdown of christmas. someone should send this to bill orielly. I hate that guy.
    Also, i thought i would shamelessly promote my website, and my new poem, which i will post here and which is totally copyrighted.

    The Night Before Christmas Part 2: Die Harder
    by Juan Ramirez

    Twas the night before Christmas
    And all I could think
    Was what a stupid holiday,
    Life sure did stink.

    Last minute shopping was done
    And presents were bought,
    And everyone seemed to forget
    all the times they had fought

    The one time of year when
    Everyone tried to be good,
    I called them all hypocrites,
    Well, I did what I could.

    Christmas pageants were held
    And the baby Jesus was hailed,
    But all I could think about
    Was where we had failed.


  • An excellent post, it should be required reading for everyone. For those that do not already know it, 'The Battle for Christmas' by Stephen Nissenbaum is the best source of information on the holiday and how it came to be.

  • sorry, heres the rest:

    We’re killing our planet
    And killing each other,
    People go hungry in the streets
    One right after another.

    All this I was thinking
    As I stared out the window,
    When I saw a sleigh in the sky
    And a fat little weirdo.

    I sprang out to the lawn,
    In my pajamas, no less
    When he landed in front of me
    And began his address,

    “I hear you’re depressed”
    I heard Santa declare,
    “if there’s something on your mind,
    Please feel free to share”

    I told him I was disillusioned by Christmas
    It didn’t make sense,
    And I asked him, I pleaded,
    “Please make your defense.”

    “You’re thinking too large”,
    He said with a smile.
    “Try thinking smaller,
    Just try for a while”

    “it’s not about saving the world from itself,
    Just start with your neighbors, your friends
    And yourself.”

    But what about Jesus?
    I asked with concern,
    Santa said, “You don’t have to believe in him
    To grow or to learn.
    Just be a good human and forgiveness is earned.”

    But what if I’m Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist?
    He said,” what if the moon is made of cheese or
    When I go home I’m a nudist?

    It really doesn’t matter what faith you subscribe to,
    As long as you have it and allow it to guide you.”

    I thought for a moment
    And it started to click,
    And that’s when I realized
    I was being a prick.

    I thanked him profusely
    For making me hear,
    As he climbed back in his sleigh
    I think he opened a beer.

    “Just be yourself” he said,
    “Don’t be a phony”
    Then he poured a bit of beer on the ground,
    For all of our homies.

    And as the sleigh flew away,
    I felt my heart grow,
    Because he had never given up
    On the world down below.

  • Seeing/analyzing says:

    Terry Pratchett has a fiction book, Hogfather, that traces the evolution of the holiday from the pagan "let's party to bring back the sun!" to "fat guy handing out presents".

  • I highly recommend David Sedaris's essay, "Six to Eight Black Men," which Mothra alluded to. Hilarious description of the Dutch version of the Santa legend.

  • Even later to the party, but the most entertaining thing I ever read on the origins of modern Christmas was "The Battle for Christmas" by Steven Nissenbaum; which as I recall mostly focuses on the very deliberate obliteration of Christmas as a time of drunken street brawls and abuse of your betters, and its replacement with the idealized faux-domestic commercial holiday we suffer through today – a transition greatly abetted by Clement Moore and Charles Dickens. I enjoyed it so much that for several years after I read it, it was at the top of my Christmas shopping list.

  • Nice story.
    However in The Netherlands we celebrate Sinterklaas on december 5 (St. Nick's feast day, Sinterklaasdag) The birthday of Sinterklaas however is indeed december 6. I know, it makes no sense :-)

  • Twas the night before Christmas,
    but you’re not at your house.
    you’re in county lock-up ,
    and you’ve just been de-loused.
    You meant no harm,
    just had too much too drink,
    then you wizzed on a cop car,
    and got thrown in the clink.
    You’re stuck in the cell,
    so you sit and you stare,
    hoping someone with bail,
    soon will be there.
    No dreams about sugar plums,
    are gonna dance in your melon,
    you don’t get much sleep,
    when you share a room with a felon.
    There’s a noise from above’
    so you look to the roof,
    there stands a fat little man,
    who smells about 80 proof.
    He’s dressed all in red,
    from his head to his toes,
    in his moustache and beard,
    are snots that had froze.
    He had a broad face,
    and quite a large belly,
    he looked dirty and tired,
    and was really quite smelly.
    He wobbles a bit,
    and stumbles around,
    then slurs out the phrase,
    there’s no chimney to go down
    He carries a fifth
    and a six pack of beer,
    if this guy is Santa,
    then where’s the reindeer?
    He shouts, “Hey Dancer, Hey Prancer,
    Hey Vixen, Hey RuPaul.
    those aren’t reindeer,
    they’re drag queens he’s tryin to call.
    Maybe he is Santa,
    man that’d be sweet,
    nope, he escaped from the nut house,
    just down the street.
    Then with a wink of his eye,
    and a twist of his head,
    he falls off the roof,
    now he’s probably dead.
    Your friends can’t raise the bail,
    so you’re shit out of luck,
    thus you come to the conclusion,
    that Christmastime sucks.

  • It seems the medium helped make the message. Christmas imagery and Christmas poems and stories were driven by 19th century printing press technology that cut the costs of books and prints. Christmas music was driven by 20th century radio and recording technology that totally restructured the distribution of music. I suppose late in the 21st century, people will look back and realize that the traditional Christmas first person shooters, platform games and performance games were based on early 21st century video game technology.

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