The Different Origins of Santa Claus

And a look into his evil counterparts.

Sure, most of us know him as a jolly looking fellow with a belly like a bowl full of jelly, but what if I told you that there are much darker depictions and origins of this mystery magic man in red?

Jolly 'Ol Saint Nick. Or is he?
Image by Jo-B from Pixabay

Many believe that Santa Claus was an idea born from a man named Saint Nicholas. The name “Santa Claus” is believed to have evolved from Saint Nicholas’ Dutch name Sinter Klaas (shortened from Sint Nikolaas). Saint Nicholas was allegedly born around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra. It wasn’t until the 1770’s that the yearly celebration to honor the death of Saint Nicholas’ began to take hold on December 6th.

Reputation

There are many legends about Saint Nicholas of Myra. One story tells how he helped three poor sisters. Their father did not have enough money to pay their dowries and thought of selling them into servitude. Three times, Saint Nicholas secretly went to their house at night and put a bag of money inside. The man used the money so that one of his daughters could marry. On the third visit, the man saw Saint Nicholas and thanked him for his kindness. He also reportedly saved three men who were falsely imprisoned and sentenced to death.
Saint Nicholas Biography (biography.com)

To see images of what Saint Nicholas may have looked like, an artist, Luigi Martino, rendered an interpretation of what he believed Saint Nick really looked like by analyzing what researchers allege to be his bones/remains. There is also a forensic reconstruction that was created in Russia in 2004. You can see those images here.

Now, that’s the official story.

Of course, I like to dig around and research other possibilities instead of accepting the first thing that comes up. So with a little digging, we see more stories from a wide range of different beliefs, and not pleasant ones at that.

If you don’t want your Christmas ruined by haunting nightmares, please do not proceed.

Krampus (Santa’s cohort?)

So who is Krampus? What is Krampus?

And why is he celebrated as well?

Santa's BFF?

This creature is portrayed as being half goat, half man. He is often referred to as the devil of Christmas and for some reason, follows behind St. Nicholas’ tradition. But instead of rewarding children with gifts and treats, he either gives them a bundle of birch wood (because that’ll show them) or, he threatens them and tortures them with the birch wood, and/or among other extremely horrendous actions.

Krampus – The Half-Goat, Half-Demon Devil of Christmas

Most renditions of this creature depict him as having one human foot, one cloven hoof, with horns at the top of his head and covered in fur, and a very demonic looking face. He would be known as the antithesis to the usual Christmas Santa Claus.

Some people have already mentioned the anagram of “Santa” being “satan”, but not too many people are aware that the name “Krampus” is derived from the German word “krampen”, which means claw.

One could let their imagination run wild with those theories, but there’s more where that came from.

Jultomten

Two sketches of a Swedish julbock costume from the 18th century
A sketch of a julbock costume (3)

Various customs developed which involved dressing up as a julbock. One example, probably from the 18th century, involved making a julbock‘s mask and fixing it to a rod, which was then tied to a man’s back. When the time came to become more goat-like, the man would lean forward and a friend would throw a blanket over him (see the above sketches). The ‘goat’ would then run around, probably just to scare children!

Julklapp

Another tradition developed of knocking hard on the front door of a house, leaving a straw goat with a joke verse and then running away. The tradition is the origin of the word julklapp (Christmas present), which literally means ‘Yule knock’.

Gradually knocking and running away became less common as the goat’s role shifted towards becoming the giver of Christmas gifts, so in 19th century Christmas presents in Sweden were often distributed by a person dressed up as a julbock, or at least wearing a goat’s face mask.

Tomte and Santa (swedishfood.com)

Huh. Interesting. Another reference to a goat.

There’s also another allusion to birch wood to punish children. Weird that the stories of both Krampus and Santa Claus would involve this form of punishment. This was seen from an American book that chose to depict Santa Claus punishing children with a birch rod, which is strange since that’s one of the punishments that Krampus allegedly used…

In 1821 the image of St. Nicholas changed significantly again when he appear in an American book called the Children’s Friend. Now he arrived from the North on Christmas Eve, rather than on December 6th, in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. But he wasn’t quite like our modern Santa Claus as he carried a birch rod to punish badly-behaved children, although the sleigh did have toys and a shelf of books for rewarding well-behaved children. Along with appearance changes, the saint’s name shifted to Santa Claus—a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus.

Tomte and Santa (swedishfood.com)

Some additional information on the “tomte spirit” (Christmas gnome) can be found here.

Père Noël and His Evil Counterpart, Le Pere Fouettard

I am not sure why the idea of Father Christmas, Santa Claus, etc., seems to need to come in two parts. One good, one evil. But here we have it again, this time in the French/Belgium culture.

We have the benevolent face of Père Noël (Father Christmas), the one we’re all used to and love.

And then we have another person who, again, seems to be working in part with him, either due to guilt and repentance, or because apparently we just can’t have something good for the sake of it.

Le Pere Fouettard’s (which literally means Father Whipper) history is that he was an evil innkeeper and along with his wife, were involved in horrible cannibalistic atrocities towards children. Père Noël caught him in the act and resurrected the children, then recruited Mr. Father Whipper to apparently terrorize the children into behaving well, literally “cracking the whip” at them to scare them into behaving.

La Befana

The tale of La Befana (Italian Christmas tradition that celebrates the Epiphany) predates that of Saint Nicholas himself. Whereas St. Nick’s birth is said to have been on 270 A.D., the story of the “Christmas Witch” begins with Jesus Christ’s birth and the three Magi during their search for him. Of course, while there is alleged physical proof of St. Nicholas’ remains, supposedly, that of La Befana is still up for debate.

According to the legend, which does differ from story to story, the three wisemen stopped by the witch’s abode and asked for help in searching for the baby Jesus. She directed them to follow the bright star in the sky. Some stories state that they were already in the process of following the Star of Bethlehem, and asked the witch if she would like to come with them to meet the Christ child. She declined, as she needed to continue doing her housework, but said that she would catch up with them later.

Alas, she could not find them, and even took to the sky on her broom to look for them. During her search, it’s said that she brought with her treats and small gifts to give to the good children, and coal, garlic and onions for the naughty children, in honor of the three wisemen’s gift-giving to Jesus. She also used the chimney to enter the homes, or even keyholes, if need be.

Santa Claus?

See also:
Frau Perchta, Terrifying Christmas Witch
for more fun references to scary punishments and goat-like entities.

Kris Kringle

Speaking of Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, one can’t mention “Christmas” without mentioning Jesus Christ, which should be the basis of the whole gift-giving tradition. Of course, due to the hectic, busy nature of Christmas and buying gifts all willy-nilly for everyone on your list, sometimes the whole reason for the Christmas season is lost on many.

What should be a time to reflect and give thanks to the gift that Jesus Christ Himself gave to the world and appreciating those in our life, this holiday is instead rife with extreme consumerism and panic induced sale-shopping to get the best deal not only on Christmas presents, but for gifts to ourselves as well. (At least for some people.)

The name Christkindl was coined by Martin Luther, ironically to try and get away from the honor of Saint Nicholas, but instead actually helped cement the whole gift-giving tradition and increased the “Santa Claus” popularity. Christkindl, also Kris Kringle, is translated to mean “Christ kind” or “Christ child” and is normally depicted as an angelic-like and/or child-like figure with blonde hair and wings, or  even as Jesus Christ.

Christkind: How Does this Christmas Gift-Bringer Differ from Santa Claus?

This account seems to simply be based on Martin Luther’s desire to get away from what he thought was the blasphemous tradition of worshiping and honoring a saint. Still, although this account seems to be from Martin Luther’s rendition of this holiday tradition, it is still celebrated in certain households.

And although Martin Luther strayed from the Saint Nicholas theme, it seems as if the similarity between Saint Nick’s partnership with a darker being can still be seen in a different form. There are depictions of this “Christ kind” seeming to work alongside Hans Von Trapp, another terrible figure known for his barbaric nature in harming and killing children. Again, the relationship between the “good force” and the “evil force” is seen working in conjunction with each other.

Why is Santa Claus sometimes associated with a “darker” personage in folklore traditions, that works in cahoots with him? Where did this development come from? Is the historic roots really based on reality? Did St. Nick really recruit a wicked man/being to work alongside him in order to frighten children into behaving?

And why are some of the depictions an evil, goat-like being?
Doesn’t sound very jolly-like. All of these revelations give new meaning to the lyrics “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

O! You better watch out!
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

O! You better watch out!
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

There are many more interesting tales that relate to the history and origin of “Santa Claus” from many other different cultures around the world. Usually they will have something similar in common, whether it’s bringing gifts to good little children who behave, or punishing those naughty, misbehaving children, to a “good” Santa Claus and his partner in crime who dishes out the punishment (or whether they’re both one in the same..), to a certain fondness for porridge or other foods and drink to be used as a means to appease these magical visitors.

Could these stories simply be a way for parents to control unruly children? Is there any truth behind these legends? Why are there so many different accounts: from a jolly, sweet old man, to a demonic-like entity as his collaborator, to a kindly good witch and beyond; while at the same time all of these stories having some sort of interesting correlations?

 

And don’t even get me started on the Christmas elves

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Fact checking is extremely important. I want to reiterate not to take everything at face value; no matter what you read, where you read it from, or who you hear it from. And to be clear, do not rely on “fact checking” websites to give you accurate information either. These are just as likely, (if not even more likely…), to feed false information and false debunking accounts to manipulate the reader. Please take everything into consideration before adhering to a certain narrative – and always keep your mind open to other possibilities.

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Featured image by VerenaObermaier from Pixabay