“The modern Santa Claus with his red robe and white fur was invented by Coca-Cola for an ad”. You’ve heard this urban myth many times before, and even repeating it every year doesn’t make it more true. Poppycock, I’d say. Truth is that there has been a Coca-Cola ad in the thirties, which was pretty much in-line with modern day Santa; but then again, Santa with a red, hooded robe or cloak has been around for much longer than that.
Just look at this picture of St. Nicholas (“Nikolaus”) as depicted in the famous German children’s book “Struwwelpeter” from 1844. Apart from the missing white fur, he’s pretty much the Santa we all know. Now let’s take a closer look at old Santa and see who his countless ancestors were…
For one there’s the obvious. The Christian St. Nicholas (or as he’s called in Germany “Sankt Nikolaus”), Bishop of Myra who is the sole and single originator of the Santa Claus worship according to the church (snicker). Klaus is an abbreviated form of Nikolaus, the English name “Santa Claus” derived from the Dutch “Sinterklaas”. The day he is celebrated in Germany (and other countries) is December 6th, also called Nicholas’ Day. In Germany he’s not the one who brings the presents on Christmas, he brings presents on Nikolaustag (Nicholas’ Day), or sometimes the night before Nicholas’ Day. The red robe is par for the course, after all he’s a bishop² (although the red colour could origin from older myths and has only been adapted by the church as a convenient happenstance), furthermore in Germany he’s usually wearing all of the bishop insignia like the bishop’s staff etc.
Interestingly in many parts of Germany and Switzerland he’s not alone. He usually is accompanied by his right hand “Knecht Ruprecht” – known by many other names, such as “Schmutzli” (the dirty one) in Switzerland, or elsewhere as “Hans Muff”, “Hans Trapp”, “Pelznickel” etc. Ruprecht is the one carrying the big sack (to put the bad children in, not to bring the presents) and the birch (for whipping bad children). Ruprecht is the scary part of Nicholas’ Day, and interestingly Ruprecht is probably the one of which Nicholas, once he started a solo career, got the hooded cloak, the trousers and the boots from. At least that’s what Knecht Ruprecht is wearing in most of his incarnations (with the one difference that his clothes tend to be of a grey or brownish colour).
So, where does this dark companion come from? What are his evil plans? He’s clearly nowhere to be seen in the many legends surrounding St. Nicholas. What dark corner of the Germanic/Nordic boondocks did he spring from? Let’s shed some light on the roots of the worshipping of Santa Claus. And some of the Proto-Clauses.
Historical Roots I
There are or have been traditions predating the worshipping of St. Nicholas, which had nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever, but held around the same time of year with very similar rites and customs. So, before Santa Claus became solo, he had Ruprecht as an assistant, but in even earlier times there was a single original that more closely resembled Ruprecht. This dark figure was going around town and no shiny Santa to be seen anywhere. Let’s first take a look at the “younger” ancestors of Santa.
Looking at the name “Pelznickel”, you might be tempted to translate it as “Fur Nicholas”, however looking closer at the name, it is “Nickel” and not Niklas or Klaus (Claus) which are merely contractions of the name Nikolaus (i.e. Nicholas), whereas Nickel¹ is an old German nickname for the devil or pre-christian evil spirits bantering humans (Nickel, Nöck, Nick, Nögg are often names attribute to mischievous male water spirits, even the German verb for to tease “necken“ has the same root).
Noteworthy here is the relationship many old German traditions and folk tales have to the devil. In many tales he has been merely replacing whatever other evils spirits were in the story before Christianity came along. The devil in those folk tales is not necessarily seen as the through and through evil spirit as one might think judging solely based on Christian values. This is partly due to the fact, that Loki² must have been acting as a role model for early Christianity to paint a colourful picture of the devil that would still speak to the pagans. But with that image Satan also sometimes tends to have a touch of Loki in our minds, being just a trickster and not a utterly evil and malignant being as his concept should be according to Christian belief.
1 Nickel: Hence the pumpernickel bread translates as pumpern = “to fart” and nickel = “devil” – farting devil. The bread can cause flatulence.
2 Loki: “the contriver of all fraud”, not really being a god, but still living amongst the gods in Asgard, was through his tricks and bantering a main source of chaos and destruction in Germanic mythology. However he was not considered thoroughly evil.
One of the prototypes of Ruprecht is the “Krampus” (from old high German “Krampen”, “claw”). In some areas of Austria these figures exist to the present day. They appear in bigger groups and look like hideous horned monsters terrifying the people around Dec. 6. Their role is to punish bad children by birching them. So in some areas Krampus actually stroll around town in the company of St. Nicholas, where the Krampus plays the role of Knecht Ruprecht with a twist.
Let’s go back even further into history and into the Germanic subconcious, the swamps of the dark and dismal world of fairy tales, spirits and monsters. In many Areas of Austria the Krampus are somewhat intertwined and exchangable with the “Perchten”, which are basically just as ugly and horrible, they come to town around the same time of the year, but which are derivatives of the Germanic figure of Perchta (or in northern Germany as Frau Holle i.e. “Mother Holle”, Hulda etc.).
Perchta punishes overly lazy and nosy children (especially girls) sometimes with dramatic measures. Lighter punishments are nightmares, in heavy cases she’ll come to slit your belly and put stones in it. Children who don’t want to clean up their rooms should be warned, Perchta is said to sneak in their rooms at night slitting their bellies open and filling them up with all the toys lying around. Of course she’s not only the big punisher, she also rewards good children (preferably girls) who do their work properly, by putting gold coins into their wells or buckets. If wells, slit bellies and stones do ring a bell with you, you might have be reconciling the fairy tale of “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids” from the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale collection. This tale is clearly influenced by the same Perchta belief that was part of shaping this particular incarnation of Proto-Santa and later Krampus.
Historical Roots II
The above Proto-Santa figures look distinctively satanic which might well be due to the church’s efforts, trying to satanise and prohibit this whole heretic habit. So let’s see if we can make out an even older version of the bearded old man.
Thor just called, he wants his car back
Santa Claus riding on a wooden sled through the sky pulled by reindeer (horned livestock) is how people in English speaking areas and some parts of northern Europe imagine Santa Claus. This picture does actually bear quite some resemblance with the Germanic god of thunder, Thor, who’s usually described as riding a wooden chariot or sometimes sled pulled by goats (horned livestock) across the sky, but that is just where the similarities start…
Thor was the god of the peasants and the common people. He was represented as an elderly man, jovial and friendly, of heavy build, with a long white beard. His element was the fire, his color red. The rumble and roar of thunder were said to be caused by the rolling of his chariot, for he alone among the gods never rode on horseback but drove in a chariot drawn by two white goats (called Cracker and Gnasher). He was fighting the giants of ice and snow, and thus became the Yule-god. He was said to live in the “Northland” where he had his palace among icebergs. By our pagan forefathers he was considered as the cheerful and friendly god, never harming the humans but rather helping and protecting them. The fireplace in every home was especially sacred to him, and he was said to come down through the chimney into his element, the fire.— Guerber, H.A. Myths of Northern Lands. New York: American Book Company, 1895, p. 61
Even in present Sweden, Thor does represent Santa Claus. The book, The Story of the Christmas Symbols, records:
Swedish children wait eagerly for Jultomten, a gnome whose sleigh is drawn by the Julbocker, the goats of the thunder god Thor. With his red suit and cap, and a bulging sack on his back, he looks much like the American Santa Claus— Barth, Edna. Holly, Reindeer, and Colored Lights, The Story of the Christmas Symbols. New York: Clarion Books, 1971, p. 49
Thor/Tor: in German “Tor” means fool. This word actually derived directly from the germanic thundergod “Thor”, who was known as a boorish and simple-minded character.
Santa what art thou?
So where does that leave us? Santa Claus’ “grandmother” appears to be a horrible horned monster, who’s got nothing better to do but slitting children’s bellies and putting stones in them. This is clearly a newer folklore based source of the Santa tradition, since his alleged great-grandfather is the thundergod Thor himself, from which Santa inherited his transportation vehicle, the colour red, and also the chimney climbing trick. Then there is a bishop from Asia who bequeathed his name and the colour red (again) to Santa, but apart from that seems somewhat unrelated to the whole “family”, and the rest of his outfit Santa borrowed from a washed down version of his great-grandfather now known by many names.
Based on the washed down versions of Proto-Santa, some fundamendalist Christians are claiming that Santa is actually Satan or has satanic roots. Arguably on many old pictures of Proto-Santas like Hans Trapp, Knecht Ruprecht, Pelznickel and others, one can spot quite a few of Satan’s traits indeed (horns, hooves, glowing eyes, goat-like appearance, soot). However, this might just as well be the fruits of many attempts by the church itself to initially satanise and then prohibit the pagan celebration of the old man with the beard around yuletide. And after ever so many failed attempts just making the whole damn thing part of Christianity by converting the pagan part into Satan and pairing it conveniently with a Christian Saint to control the “evil”.
Looking closer, it turns out that probably Santas oldest form is in fact the thundergod Thor himself. which actually makes a lot of sense considering that Jultid (Yuletide, the festivity that later became Christmas) was celebrated as an important pagan holiday, long before the christianisation of the Germanic tribes. Once the church realised they couldn’t get rid of the old bearded man, they did what they always do: assimilated the customs into Christian belief. Preferably using the myth of a saint, first grouping him together with the older figure known and loved by the common people, later on the Saint would take over the holiday as the sole “Father Christmas”.
This assimiliaton into Christian holidays is what the church has done over and over to many pagan holidays once they found people wouldn’t easily let go of those pagan customs. Easter (in German “Ostern”, the holiday for “Ostara” a Germanic goddess), Carnival (Fasnacht) and Julefest (Jultid, yuletide now known as Christmas around the globe). All of these holidays ended up as Christian holidays. While the dates of these holidays have astronomical significance, in context of Christianity they are set completely arbitrarily. Nobody knows when Christ was actually born, there is no clear evidence in the bible either, but we can tell for sure it couldn’t have been December. Or do you think shepherds are out on the fields with their sheep in December?