When we think of Santa Claus history, we imagine a rather rotund, merry, and jolly old figure. We can picture him in his red and white suit, his twinkling eyes peering over a pair of half spectacles. There’s nothing dark about this benevolent and familiar Christmas character, or is there?
If you like a dark tale or two, rich in legend and superstition, then sit back, because I have some stories to tell. Perhaps after I’ve finished, you might not want your children to believe in Santa Claus after all.
Any discussion about the history of Santa Claus has to start with St Nicholas, the original inspiration for Santa Claus.
Nicholas was born in modern-day Turkey during the 3-century to wealthy Christian parents. His parents, who raised Nicholas to be a devout Christian, died during an epidemic, leaving him a vast fortune.
Rather than squander his inheritance, Nicholas used it to help the poor, sick, and needy. He was generous to children. Soon, his generosity began to circulate, and he was made Bishop of Myra by the church.
We associate children and magical gifts in the night with Nicholas because of one such tale of kindness and generosity.
In this story, a poor man is destitute and cannot raise the money for a dowry for his three daughters. A dowry is a payment of cash given to the bride’s future in-laws at the time of marriage. Without a dowry, there can be no marriage, with the daughters destined for a life of prostitution.
Bishop Nicholas heard of the father’s dilemma and one night dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney. It fell into a stocking which just happened to be hanging up by the fire to dry. He did the same with each daughter so that they could all be married.
This is just one of many stories of kind acts by Nicholas. Because of his good deeds, Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors, and many others. He died on December 6, which is now his patron saint day.
St Nicholas is credited with performing miracles, which leads me on to my next character in the history of Santa Claus – Père Fouettard.
We think of Santa Claus as a kind of lone wolf. Flying across the skies on Christmas Eve on his sleigh, completely alone. He may have Mrs. Claus and elves as helpers, but there’s no sidekick or double act.
Actually, in Santa Claus’s history, you’d be surprised. Santa Claus crops up with a partner more than once.
There are several stories of how Père Fouettard (or Father Whipper as he is known) came to exist, but they all centre on a dark, sadistic killer who murders three boys. One story originates around 1150.
An evil butcher kidnaps three boys, slits their throats, dismembers them, and then pickles their bodies in barrels.
St Nicholas arrives, and the butcher offers him a piece of this delicious meat, fresh from the pickling barrels. However, St Nicholas refuses. Instead, he resurrects the three boys from the dead and returns them to their worried parents.
The butcher, having been caught out by St Nicholas, sees that he has no option but to repent. He agrees to serve the saint for eternity. He is now known as Père Fouettard, and his job is to dispense whippings to those who misbehaved.
In a different Père Fouettard story, an innkeeper replaces the butcher. The innkeeper murders the three boys, pickles their dismembered bodies in barrels in the cellar under the inn. St Nicholas senses something is wrong when he enters the inn. He brings the boys back to life.
We are off to the snowy mountains of Austria now. Here, a fearsome creature replete with devil horns and gnashing teeth terrorises the children. Krampus is the polar opposite of jolly Santa Claus. Described as horned, half-man half-demon, Krampus plays bad cop to Santa’s good cop.
Whereas Santa goes out during the days preceding Christmas to reward good children, Krampus finds and terrorises the ones who have been naughty.
Depicted with long pointed horns, a furry mane, and frightening teeth, Krampus is rumoured to steal naughty children, place them in sacks, and beat them with birch switches.
We remain in Europe for our next double act, Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) and Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). In countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, people celebrate Christmas with a more refined and dignified Santa Claus figure called Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas (where we get the name Santa Claus from) is a tall man who wears a traditional bishop’s attire. He wears a ceremonial mitre and carries a bishop’s staff.
Children put out their stockings on December 5 and Sinterklaas brings gifts to those who have been good during the year.
Alongside Sinterklaas is his servant Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet’s job is to punish naughty children. He does this by carrying them off in a sack, beating them with a broomstick, or leaving just a lump of coal as their gift.
The tradition of Zwarte Piet is contested these days as Black Pete is depicted using blackface with exaggerated lips. It is also associated with black slavery. However, some say Black Pete is black because he is covered in the soot from coming down chimneys.
Who would have thought that Santa Claus history could be so dark? It just goes to show that even the jolliest of characters can have mysterious and frightening undertones.
Q; Why does Santa not have any children?
A: Because he only comes once a year and then it's down your chimney.