Who was the real Santa Claus?

An old man with a beard, a witch, or a troll? Who was the Santa Claus underneath? What shape does it assume today?

Here is the story of that mysterious guy who brings us gifts on the morning of December 6th. According to Polish tradition, he always puts small presents underneath pillows or inside shoes. Who was the real Santa Claus? And who is impersonating him all over the World nowadays?

Against all appearances, Santa Claus had nothing to do with the cute old man wearing a red hat and sweeping with his sleigh surrendered by snow in distant Lapland. Quite the opposite, the aboriginal saint has had rather southern roots. The story of his life has been told in so many ways that it became as bizarre and legendary as the versions with flying sleighs pulled by reindeer. 

Santa from Turkey

Saint Nicholas was a Greek born in the 3rd century in the port of Patara, on the Southern coast of Asia Minor. Back then, these lands were part of the eastern Roman Empire. Nowadays they belong to Turkey. Nicholas became a bishop of Myra, today’s Demre. It is located a little further east along the coast. 

Presumably, he was imprisoned and tortured because of his Faith. However, little is known about his life. According to the hagiographic legends, he featured being righteous, and eager to help poor people and he performed many miracles. None of the church documents from that century mentions a world of such character. Almost every piece of information about this saint comes from iconography and poor archaeological surveys. 

The first mentions of bishop Nicholas came up in the written sources only as far as in the 6th century. That means 200 years after his death. Those particular texts tell the legends of his numerous miracles. The bishop of the Lycian Myra had to save 3 roman soldiers from death. They were falsely condemned to extinguishing for joining the riot by Constantine the Great. Moreover, he helped out the sailors drowning during the storm. He appeared on their boat, fixed it up, and chase away the wind. The story of three daughters saved by Nicholas from prostitution is repeated in many mentions. Their poor father didn’t have enough sources to give a dowry to the girls. To earn money he decided to send them to a public house. Nicholas secretly chucked over 3 pouches of gold to the sisters. He also dropped one of them to the chimney where it landed in the stocking.

The old man giving gifts?

That is how saint Nicholas became a symbol of the defender of necessitous and the one supporting poor ones. The tradition of proceedings on December 6th is on that particular day because of the supposed date of saint Nicholas’s death. It has its roots in the middle ages. In the 13th century on the day of saint Nicolas schools were given charities and scholarships for poor students. With time Nicolas became a patron not only for children but also for unfairly unprisoned, brewers, shoeshiners, engaged, pharmaceutics, and perfumers. What is more, he is the patron of Russia, Greece, Apulia, Sicily, Lotharingia, and Aberdeen. His corpse has been moved in 1087 from Myra to Bari in southern Italy. Basilica dedicated to the bishop Nicolas gained fame because of the miracles that happened there thanks to the saint.

And who is saint Nicholas nowadays? Here also the answer is not so obvious. Popular in many countries old man with a beard is not the only character who brings gifts to the children. Only in Poland depending on the region, the other role gives presents on Christmas Eve. It can be Gwiazdor, the Angel, the Child, or the Star. 

Other faces of Nicholas

In Italy on the 5th of January, the eve of the Three Kings, the children are visited not by a man but by a benevolent woman, looking just a little bit like a witch. Befana is an old woman with a long, curved nose. She is wearing jagged clothes and her head is tied with a scarf. She is flying above Italy on her broom, walking into houses by the chimney, and putting a gift into good children’s socks. Although, the bad ones were given a carbon stone. To thank her for her gifts some people lefts some fruits and wine for her.

In some regions of Germany and Austria on December 5th children are visited by evil Krampus rather than cheerful Nicolas. The creature was a buck with a long tongue, sharp teeth, and pointed horns. His hairy body was tied up with chains with bells. In his hand, he holds a bunch of birch branches. That sinister character probably derives from germanic pagan tradition and according to the legend, he comes to punish nasty children. On Christmas eve in German, Austrian, Czech, and Slovak houses everybody waits for the visitation of the Child Jesus. It often takes on the form of a woman looking like an angel who has got long, curly hair.

In Spain but also in Mexico, children write letters for Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar who on the day of 6th January come and give presents. Differently, in Catalonia from December 8th to Christmas eve children look after and feed Tió de Nadal also called Caga tió. It is a piece of the stump in a red hat, with a smiley face drowned on it. It is being propped up by two sticks imitating legs, covered with a blanket. On Christmas eve children sing songs for it. They ask it to dung and then beat it with sticks. As a result, they find a lot of gifts hidden underneath the blanket.

The monk with raised belly

In Iceland, children are being visited by as many as 13 guests. Yule Lads is a group of mischievous trolls. Starting by the 13th night before Christmas they one by one come from the mountains. Every night one of them is visiting Icelandic houses and lefts gifts for the children. Whereas, in Japan the counterpart of Santa is Hoteiosho. He is pictured as a Buddhist monk with raised belly, wearing a red robe with an uncovered chest. According to some beliefs, he has got eyes around his head and thanks to that he can imperceptibly watch the behaviour of the child. He also brings the presents in his bag but he does it not until in loudly celebrated in Japan, New Year.

Despite the globalisation and commercialisation of Christmas traditions and despite the image of Santa Claus in red clothes and with a snowy white beard being spread around. In different cultures, the characters inspired by the bishop of Myra still have got many incredibly interesting faces.

Weronika Szczurko – Student of international cultural studies at the Jagiellonian University. Author of collages combining graphic and textual elements (IG @slowailustrowane). Editorial assistant at Salam Lab.

Translated by Marianna Gracz.


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