Is Santa Claus Greek?

December 28, 2020

The modern Santa Claus is undoubtedly based on various traditions:

on the historical Greek Saint Nicholas, the English figure of Father Christmas, the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (also based on Saint Nicholas) and a lof ot american advertising...

Long story short: yes, even Santa Claus is Greek! (well, sort of...)

                                                             

                                           But how did it all begin....?

Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος) of Myra (now southern Turkey, close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo) was a Greek Christian bishop (270-343 AD), born in the city of Patara. His parents were probably named Epiphanius (Ἐπιφάνιος) and Ioanna (Ἰωάννα) or Theophanes (Θεοφάνης) and Nonna (Νόννα). As you can see the names sound pretty much the same...

Typical icon of the saint
with Άγιος Νικόλαος in Greek

Νικόλαος was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, especially for providing dowries to the three daughters of a Christian so that they would not have to become prostitutes. Eventually he became the patron saint of sailors.

Paintings of St. Nicholas
on the island of Milos, Greece

700 years after his death...

In the 11th century, Myra is occupied by the Turks as they march towards the West. Eventually, and despite the objection of the four local monks in the Greek church in Myra, Italian merchants from Bari removed the major bones of the saint's skeleton from his sarcophagus.

The sarcophagus in the St. Nicholas Church,
Demre, Turkey

His bones are still in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in Bari, while the Venetians took the remaining bones, as well as those of other bishops of Myra, and took them to Venice, where they deposited them in the church of Saint Nicholas of Lido. Also small bones from his skeleton quickly began to disperse across western Europe.......

Pilgrims at the tomb of Saint Nicholas, Bari

Time is passing, and now we are in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

By now, it is already common for children to receive gifts in his honour, on the evening before his name day (6 December).

The custom of giving gifts at Christmas though was Martin Luther's idea. Luther was a German professor of theology and major figure of the Reformation (1483-1546).

Martin Luther

He suggested Christmas as an alternative to the very popular St. Nicholas custom, to focus children's interest on Jesus instead on saints, who are actually a very big deal in the Orthodox Church.

Luther actually first suggested the Christkind as the bringer of gifts but eventually Nicholas remained popular as a gifts bearer, and I'm sure you've probably never heard of Jesus bringing gifts...

The Christkind (baby Christ).
'Creepy' you said?

And now we move on to.... Father Christmas!

His tradition dates back as far as only the 16th century in England but we probably had personifications of Christmas since the 15th century.

England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, so the Father Christmas celebration was moved to 25 December to coincide with Christmas.

His physical appearance varied, with one famous image being an illustration of the "Ghost of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol (1843).

Oh yes, he's wearing green
and has great abs...

And then some Germanic and Norse traditions come into play, which even involve god Odin...

As folklorist Margaret Baker said: "the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage."

Odin!

Wait...!
This is the right one,
and he kind of looks more like Santa...

So now we've come to the 19th century...

Some modern ideas of Santa Claus became common after the publication of the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas") in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on 23 December 1823.

St. Nick is described as being "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf" with "a little round belly", that "shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly", in spite of which the "miniature sleigh" and "tiny reindeer" still indicate that he is physically diminutive.

The reindeer were also named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).

Thomas Nast, a German-born American caricaturist, created the modern image of Santa Claus and also came up with the North Pole as the saint's home (wait, what?!).

Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through the Coca-Cola Christmas advertising in the 1930s, although he had been previously used by other companies first, bringing us to the image that we are all familiar with today...

Ta daaa...!

As for Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland... don't even get me started.

It is just an amusement park that opened only in 1985 (year of my birth by the way).

Otherwise, there is no connection to Finland whatsoever....

So the journey from a Greek seaside town all the way through Europe and America to the North Pole has been trully a wonder...

But I saved the best for last:

although Santa (Ni)C(o)laus originates from Greece, the gift bearer here is.... Saint Vasilios!

In Greek tradition, Basil is the one who brings gifts to children every January 1 (St Basil's Day).

Άγιος Βασίλειος in Greek