Saturday, December 24, 2011

Santa Claus: a universal symbol of Christmas

The idea of Christmas is intimately connected to the image of a chubby old man dressed in red and wearing black boots and belt and a white beard. This man, called Santa Claus, St Nick, or just Santa, is the personification of Christmas. It seems that you can’t have one without the other. But in fact, while Christmas has been celebrated for many centuries, Santa Claus, as he is known today, is only about 200 years old.
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Before Santa was “born”, people in England believed in a man called Father Christmas who used to dress in green and go from home to home, feasting with families, but he did not use to bring gifts to children and he certainly would not go down a chimney!

The origin of Santa Claus can be found in the Greek bishop St Nicholas of Myra (Turkey), who was a very generous man that used to help people in need. His cult has spread in Europe from the 4th century to our days, and he was made patron saint of Amsterdam. It was precisely the Dutch immigrants in New York (formerly known as New Amsterdam) who brought to America the belief in a gift-bringer called Sinterklaas.
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The American writer Washington Irving wrote about him in “A History of New York”, written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbrocker. He described Sinterklaas as an old man in dark robes that arrived on a flying horse to give presents to children. But it was in the famous poem “A visit from St Nicholas”, written by Clement Clark Moore when we first see Santa going down chimneys and travelling in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Moore even gave names to the reindeer! This famous poem is traditionally told to children on Christmas Eve.
You can hear it in this nice video:

Inspired by Moore’s story, the illustrator Thomas Nast drew many cartoons depicting Santa as we know him today, and he added some new ideas such as his workshop in the North Pole, his helpers, the elves, and the lists of good and bad children.
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But it was undoubtedly the Coca-Cola advertisements in the 30´s that contributed to the image of a human-sized Santa (rather than an elf) that we have today, when the three personages have merged and mingled to form one single character.
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Call him Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, people all over the world will always think of a chubby, cheerful old man dressed in red and wearing a white beard that goes down chimneys to give presents to children, and flies away in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

Is Santa Claus one of the symbols of globalisation?

This is a nice quizz about Santa, by the BBC.

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