This post is the third installment of a series concerning the astonishing 1600 year backstory of Santa Claus (you should start here with part 1, if you want things in chronological order). At the conclusion of yesterday’s post, Saint Nicholas was a beloved saint from Greek-speaking Anatolia who was the focus of miracle stories about fighting demons, helping the poor, and raising the dead. Many lesser-known saints have similar stories (although few miracles are as impressive as the story of Saint Nicholas resurrecting the murdered boys). So how did Saint Nicholas transition from an ascetic Mediterranean wonder-worker to de-facto god of the winter solstice?
The answer involves the multi-century conversion of northern and central Europe to Christianity. In order to facilitate the widespread conversion of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes into the Christian fold, churchmen drew on preexisting traditions and customs. Many pagan deities thus became conflated with traditional saints (a cultural syncretism not dissimilar from what we wrote about in this post about Afro-Caribbean voodoo loa) and many pagan customs worked their way into Christianity. Saint Nicholas was a stern bearded figure whose feast day occurred near Yule (winter solstice). Additionally he had a history of giving gifts, punching people, and performing strange resurrection miracles. Because of these traits Saint Nicholas became identified with Wotan (or Odin), the otherworldly wandering king of Germanic gods.
At Yuletime, Wotan would hunt through the sky on his flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Many of Wotan’s old names and characteristics are those of a wizard-like winter king. He had a long white beard and his epithet “Jólnir” meant “Yuletime god”. He held suzerainty over tribe of magical gnomes/dwarves who acted as his smiths and crafted wonderful weapon for him. If a youth was worthy, Wotan would bring him a shiny knife or axe (which was slipped into a shoe or under the bed). If a youth was unworthy, then the hapless dullard was in for a round of physical punishment or was simply dragged away by trolls and demons. Wotan knew who was worthy and who was not because he had two black ravens “Thought” and “Memory” who traveled through the world taking note of mortal proclivities. Speaking of animal helpers, at Yuletime it was characteristic to leave apples and carrots for Sleipnir (the flying horse) just in case Wotan decided to visit.
Stepping into these big northern shoes was a heady transition for an orthodox Mediterranean saint. Additionally, northern Europe was not culturally homogenous. Saint Nicholas took on different names and characteristics in different parts of Europe. In Germany he was known variously Weihnachtsmann, Nickel, Klaus, Boozenickel, Hans Trapp, or Pelznickel. Sometimes he was served by bestial underlings like Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus. In other regions he worked alone or opposed these winter demons. In the north Sant Nick’s dwarvish smiths morphed into a tribe of elves but in Switzerland they morphed into Moors. Wotan’s ravens turned into the famous naughty/nice list.
Later, in Holland, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, a magical gift-giving bishop who traveled by means of flying sled—and who kept a captured Surinamese servant to help out (you can read about the eyebrow-raising modern interpretations of Zwarte Piet in this article by my friend Jessica). For some reason Sinterklaas was thought to live in Spain during his off-season. England (with its mix of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French culture) had its own traditions of Father Christmas—a nature god clothed in green. Children from France waited for Père Noël to bring them gifts on his magic donkey (and don’t even ask about Ded Moroz, the Slavic Frost King who travels around Russia with Snegurochka).
In other words Saint Nicholas became more interesting and diverse as he was adopted by different folklore traditions. However he also became confusing and strange to the point of unrecognizability. Yet by the 18th and 19th centuries, new trends of globalization and industrialization were sweeping Europe—and the globe. Santa was ready to put on his red suit and drive his reindeer to his toy factory. You can read up to where his story meets the present (the temporal present!) in tomorrow’s post.