• Rose Smith

Santa and Co.: A History of Magical Gift Givers of the Holiday Season


Photo Source: Pixnio

Santa Claus is a figure that has enchanted nearly every American kid who celebrates Christmas. Although it was common around middle school or high school to prefer to say when you first got “disillusioned” by the myth of Santa, I am proud to remember when Santa truly felt real to me, when I did get a sense of excitement from putting out cookies by the chimney (or back balcony door when we lived in an apartment—I did get stressed by the fact that we did not have a chimney, though my parents quickly soothed my fears by pointing out the back balcony as a perfectly valid way to get into the house and to our Christmas tree). There is still a sort of magic to the Christmas tradition and adds to the brighter parts of the holiday season. Even Google holds a “Santa Tracker” that tracks where Santa would be on his present-delivering rounds around the world. The image of Santa that formed my childhood memories has actually evolved over a couple centuries, and it even has a uniqueness to the United States.

Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas, has been a religious figure since about 280 AD (History). Known as the protector of children and sailors, his death day was a feast day, celebrated on December 6th. Throughout European history, Saint Nicholas was revered as one of the most popular saints in Europe. During the late 1700s, the Dutch brought the idea of St. Nicholas into the American mind as the New York Tabloids publicized the feast day. Then, it took until the 1820s to create the image of Santa Claus as we know it today. This went perfectly well with the rise of Christmas shopping around this time. Stores would have promotions where children could see a “real live” Santa Claus in their stores, not unlike the mall Santas we have today. From then on, Santa became a mainstay symbol of Christmas time in American culture.

As ubiquitous as Santa Claus is in American culture, different countries have their own Christmastime traditions. For instance, on January 6th, Babouschka visits the homes of children, leaving gifts at their bedside. The story goes that Babouschka purposefully gave incorrect directions to the three kings of their way to Bethlehem (History). Because she felt terrible about what she had done, she leaves presents at every child’s bedside, hoping that the child was perhaps baby Jesus and that she would make up for what she had done. However, my personal favorite “Santa” would likely be Krampus, a figure popular in places such as Austria, Germany, and Hungary (Smithsonian). During the night of St. Nicholas, while Santa puts candy into the shoes of the good, Krampus takes naughty children and either beats them with birch branches or puts them into his sack in hopes of dragging them into his cave and eating them. Also, unlike Santa, Krampus is much more monstrous. The son of the Norse god of the underworld, Hel, Krampus is a giant furry goat-demon (a stark contrast from the jolly look and demeanor of his Christmas counterpart).

Whether you are a holiday cynic, a devout lover of the holidays, or somewhere in between and live in the United States, you are definitely familiar with the image of Santa Claus, the jolly man with a big white beard and a memorable laugh. However, he has come a long way, with influences dating back to the third century. Different countries have their own magical Christmas counterparts, whether it is the remorseful Babouschka or the terrifying Krampus. Nevertheless, I think that it’s wonderfully fascinating that we have and keep alive these stories of winter gift givers (or children eaters). It adds a good lot of magic to the holiday season for those from one to ninety-two (and over, of course).

Rose Smith is the blog editor of Twenty-two Twenty-eight. When she isn’t writing about the world around her, she is often found listening to music, watching movies, and going on walks with her dogs.

You can find her on Instagram here and on Twitter here.