The true story of Santa Claus remains one of the biggest mysteries of all time. Stories and legends of this jolly, red-clad symbol of kindness and Christmas cheer have been passed around for centuries in countries all over the world. Some believe Santa Clause has his roots in Christianity while some believe that he was really based on the mythological god, Odin. Others think that he was invented by the Coca Cola companies in the early 1900’s to sell more pop.
Below are a few different explanations for the history of Santa Clause.
Early Christianity One story of Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas as he is often referred to, says that he was a Christian bishop named Saint Nicholas of Maya. As this account has it, Saint Nicholas was a bishop who gave wedding dowries to poor women, allowing them to catch husbands and avoid lives of prostitution. This Saint Nicholas can still be seen on German holy cards.
Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands In Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, Santa Claus is thought to be based on the Norse god Odin (or Woden), god of wisdom, war and death. Legend was that Odin would throw a party around Christmastime for other gods and dead warriors, and that he would ride to the party on his horse, Slepnir. Children in these countries leave straw, carrots or sugar in their shoes for Odin’s flying horse, which are replaced with treats or gifts during the night.
Austria and Italy Early folk tales in southern Austria and northwest Italy tell of a holy man who reforms a hideous child-eating monster. As the story goes, there was a large demon, covered in furs (known as Belsnickle, or “Furry Nicholas”) that snuck into homes at night to kill village children violently and stuff them up the chimney, or drag them away to be eaten later. A saint traps the demon with magic shackles, forcing him to bring the children toys and candy instead, to make up for how many of them he ate. In some stories, the demon persuades imps and other creatures to help him, similar to Santa’s elves, and in others, he chooses to go back to Hell instead.
Britain The Brits’ rendition of Santa Claus, dating back to the 17th Century, is most similar to ours. Santa, or Father Christmas, was a bearded man in a green, fur-lined robe, that starred in the Charles Dickens story, A Christmas Carol, as the “Ghost of Christmas Present” – no pun intended.
Early America America, called the melting pot of modern civilization, is also the melting pot of Santa Claus mythology. British, Dutch and early American influences came together to give us the Santa Claus that most of us are familiar with today: the jolly old man, distributing gifts yearly with the help of his entourage of elves and reindeer. The Coca Cola/Santa Claus myth stems from when companies in the early 1900s, like White Rock Beverages and Coca Cola began using Santa’s image to promote their products—and of course, his distinctive red and white colors didn’t help dispel the rumor.
The only thing we’re really sure of is that Santa Claus was not invented by Coca Cola, as the urban legend states. But no matter where the real Santa hails from, what he stands for remains the same throughout every country: kindness, goodness and the generous, giving spirit associated with Christmas.