Monday, December 2, 2013

Visages of Santa Claus

We all know him as that jolly guy in the red suit that clambers down your chimney to deliver your presents on Christmas morning. What you might not know is Santa Claus is not solely a Christian manifestation; in fact it is quite the opposite really. We know the American version of St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, which originally came from the Dutch version called Sint Nikolaas or Sinterklaas. The Dutch settlers in New York brought this tradition (some even say cult) to America.

This version of Santa has given the current myth this current description:

A merry old man with red and white clothes. Has eight flying reindeer, later joined by Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. A home located on or near the North Pole. The habit of filling socks or stockings with presents on the night of December 24th. Also the habit of entering houses through the chimney.

The most important source for our modern day version of Santa Claus comes from the Christmas poem Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore. Written for his children in 1823, the family poem was later published for the general public and included what became the now famous picture of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. Actually the old "cult" of Santa Claus incorporates many traditions: Christian and Pagan, Old Catholic, Scandinavian, Dutch, German, and English. There are though many other visages of the jolly (and some not so jolly) old man from different cultures.

Grandfather Frost is the Russian equivalent to Santa and has strong Pagan ties. He is usually accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka (Snow girl), who helps Grandfather Frost provide a New Year party for children as well as bringing them gifts. He wears a long fur coat covered by bright beautiful cloth (blue or red) trimmed in fur. According to new tradition, Grandfather Frost and Snegurochka live in the town Veliky Ustug from which they begin their New Year journey by troika of white horses. Today Grandfather Frost is connected to New Year celebrations, but before 1917 he was seen more around Christmas time. Grandfather Frost and Snegurochka visit children asking them to sing or read a poem, sometimes asking if they were good and giving them presents as a reward.

The finish have Joulupukki which literally means: Yule Buck. This old pagan tradition remained strong in Finland but got a Christian taste to it as time went by (like most things it seems). The ancient pagans used to have festivities to ward the spirit of darkness who wore goat skins and horns. In the beginning this creature didn't give presents but demanded them. In fact the "Christmas Goat," as some referred to it, was an ugly creature and frightened children. It is unclear how this personality was transformed into the benevolent Father Christmas. Nowadays the only remaining feature is the name. Now Joulupukki consists of many personages with roles partly Christian, partly pagan: A white-bearded saint, the Devil, demons, house gnomes, whatnot. Nowadays the Joulupukki of Finland resembles the American Santa Claus.

Norway (my favorite, go figure)
Now in Norway we have two different visages, if you will, of comparability to Santa: Nisse and Julenissen. Julenissen is a specific form of a nisse that only comes out around Yule (Jul).

The Norwegian Nisse differs from both Santa Claus and St. Nicholas. In modern Norway we actually have two types of "nisser". The name Nisse most likely comes from St. Nicholas. But nisser - which are elves (or gnomes) are old figures which existed long before the birth of Christ (and that my grandmother has all over her house in the form of figurines). There are several types of "nisser" in Norway.

The most common is the Fjøsnisse (don't ask me to pronounce it, lol) which is a nisse who takes care of the animals on the farms. The Fjøsnisse is very short and often bearded and lives in a barn or a stable. He wears clothes of wool and often has a red knitted hat (seen above). The Fjøsnisse often plays tricks on people (I grew up listening to tales of why to beware of them). Sometimes he will scare people by blowing out the lights in the barn or he will scare the farm dog at night. He can become very friendly with the people that live on the farm, but one should never forget to give him a large portion of porridge on Christmas Eve - or else he will play tricks for example move the animals around in the barn, braid the horses' mane and tail, and other tricks like that.

Like I stated above, we also have a Christmas/Yule nisse (julenissen) which in most homes is more or less identical to Santa Claus. The Julenisse brings presents to all the nice children on Christmas Eve. He is not as shy as Santa though, since the julenisse delivers the presents himself. He does not come down the chimney in the middle of the night but will literally knock on your door and walk in.

In Ireland they have more or less the same as the British or Americans. Daidí na Nollag (Daddy of Christmas) in Irish, is known in Ireland as Santy or Santa. He brings presents to children in Ireland, which are opened on Christmas morning. It is traditional to leave a mince pie and a bottle or a glass of Guinness along with a carrot for Rudolph, although in recent years Guinness has been replaced with milk and mince pies with cookies (spoil sports).

Black Peter is popular in the Netherlands and is very similiar to the darker version that Finland has. In the folklore and legends of the Netherlands and Belgium, Zwarte Piet (meaning Black Pete) is a companion of Saint Nicholas whose yearly feast in the Netherlands is usually celebrated on the evening of 5 December (Sinterklaas-avond, that is, St. Nicholas Eve) and 6 December in Belgium, when they distribute sweets and presents to all good children.

The characters of Zwarte Pieten appear only in the weeks before Saint Nicholas's feast (which is today the 6th), first when the saint is welcomed with a parade as he arrives in the country (usually by boat). Zwarte Pieten mainly amuses children, and scatters pepernoten, Kruidnoten and "strooigoed" (special sinterklaas-candies) for those who come to meet the saint as he visits stores, schools, and other places.

According to the more modern Saint Nicholas legend, Zwarte Piet is a servant who tavels with Saint Nicholas. In some versions, Saint Nicholas is said to have liberated a young slave named Peter, who decided to serve Nicholas. Zwarte Piet is today commonly depicted as a black person in the colorful pantaloons, feathered cap and ruffles of a Renaissance European page, a tradition that comes from a children's book published in 1850. Many feel that this visage is racist, though.

"Santa Claus Origins and FAQ" Christmas Connection
"Christmas in Norway" (Image from there as well)


Post a Comment