He is a legendary figure that seems to live forever or out of the realms of time as we know it. He is comprised of ancient origin, yet remains ever evolving with modern technology and ever changing tradition. He is Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and many other names known the world over. It has taken centuries for him to become the legend that he is.
Scholars place an early ancestor of Mr. Claus back to the times of the prehistoric shaman, who in Scandinavian lands would give gifts to children during the Winter Solstice in a time thousands of years before the birth of Christ. It is commonly understood that the true and official line of Santa as we know him today began in the 300s AD with the very real Saint Nicholas of Myra, an early Christian minister from what is now Turkey.
Nicholas spent his life serving those in need, giving to children especially. The day of his natural death, December 6, remains in many countries a special day as children are often visited by the kindly Saint who leaves small tokens of chocolate and or small toys. As all good things do, the legends of Nicholas were spread through the travels of early Christians into Russia, where he was made patron to the city of Moscow. As his story traveled, his fame grew. And so did the gift giving, as exampled by French nuns in the 900s AD who would leave small treats for children in the name of Nicholas.
How did Santa come to America? Most believe that he arrived with the Dutch in New Amsterdam, now New York. It is even said that the figurehead of their ship was an image of Nicholas. In fact, the first true American image of Santa appears on a Dutch woodcut from around 1800. His name began to change from the Dutch Sinter Klaas, which means Saint Nicholas, to variations such as Sinter Claus, Sancte Claus, Santee Claus, and finally Santa Claus. By the year 1804 old Saint Nick departed from his bishop’s robes into a suit of fur. The more modern look of Santa would not come until the 1860s with the drawings of Thomas Nast. The day of his arrival to homes everywhere would even change from December 6 to the night before Christmas thanks to the poem known now by the same name.
In West Virginia history, a Christmas gift giver arrives in the late 1700s with the European settlers of Germany who had their own take on the legend. He was called Belsnickel or Pelz Nichol, and he was far from the jolly image we know today. He was a wild man and a trickster. He was known to carry both treats and punishment to children, throwing candy on the floor and then swatting a child with a birch rod if he grabbed without asking.
A custom arose in the remotest parts of the Allegheny Mountains from this figure called Belsnickeling or Kringling. In a custom much like Halloween folks would dress in wild costumes and see if neighbors could guess who they were. If they could not a prank was played. These pranksters covered many a cabin’s chimney with a sheet so that the smoke would fill the house. But it was all in good fun.
As the mountains became less remote the image of Santa became more in line with what the rest of the country experienced. But in some parts of the state they still make merry. Old Belsnickel still roams the hills.
Yes, Santa has had a long journey in becoming what he is today to all of us. From the frozen Scandinavian Yuletides to Mediterranean Turkey and Russia, through all of Europe and finally to America Santa has come to spread a message of love and good cheer each Christmas. As the world moves on may he ever move along with it and continue to bring joy.