Saints and Spectres of Christmas
Despite cultural chasms and disconnected theologies, all through recorded history an almost miraculous thread of kinship exists in the celebration of what we know as Christmas. Its most common thread however, is the great many gift-baring phantoms that have come to represent the spirit of the season.
The fascinating journey of jolly old Santa to his present day image takes us around the globe through a dizzying medley of customs, both familiar and terrifying. His prosaic origins can be traced back to a canonised Greek Bishop in the small Turkish village of Myra in the 4th Century AD. Saint Nicholas - the Patron Saint of Children - was lauded for his philanthropy, helping many impoverished children by distributing gifts or money during the reign of the Roman Empire. Known today by his combined Latin and Germanic name, Santa (Saint in Spanish) and Claus (the contracted form of Nicholas), the character of Santa evolved through the merging of radically diverse customs and folklore.
During the Middle Ages, the tradition of gift giving in the name of Saint Nicholas grew, but the more pious clergy felt that this accolade distracted children from Christ. So began the age-old divisiveness between those who view Christmas as a purely religious celebration and those who favour the tradition of generosity in remembrance of St Nicholas. It was not until the mid-20th Century that the modern interpretation of Santa Claus as a red-suited, white-bearded, jolly old man was refined.
The adaptation of Santa from charitable Bishop to supernatural figure first occurred in Scandinavian folklore. In Germanic Europe, he was re-defined as the Norse god, Odin, who led a procession of ghostly grey horses across the sky during the mid-winter Yule season - a time when spectral activity was at its peak. As the story crossed the Atlantic into 18th Century North America, reindeer replaced horses and Christianity’s prominence in the region meant that Old Saint Nicholas was re-established as the figurehead and Odin was out.
Although popularised throughout all of Christendom, Santa is not the only seasonal phantom to bestow gifts. In Rome, for instance, legend tells of Befana, a broom-wielding housekeeper, who hosted the Three Wise Men on their way to witness Christ’s birth. Her work prevented the woman from joining the pilgrims - a decision she ultimately regretted - and so she devoted herself to gifting every child from then on, believing that Christ could be found in every innocent. Her appearance, however, was that of a withered witch and youngsters were warned that they would receive a swift knock on the head with Befana’s broomstick if they attempted to catch sight of her delivering gifts. Here we find the origin of the cover story used by parents throughout the ages, secretly fulfilling the role of either Crone or Saint on Christmas Eve.
For fear-inducing Yuletide visitors, however, the German phantom, Krampus is difficult to beat. This horned, demonic figure was said to tear across wintery rooftops in Saint Nicholas’s wake, delivering brutal punishment to naughty children, while Santa rewarded the good-hearted. Krampus is one of the oldest known seasonal spirits, originating in Pagan winter solstice celebrations. According to Germanic folklore, he was the son of Hel (the god of the underworld). He was later adopted into Christian ceremonies as a kind of ‘anti-Saint’, influencing artistic portrayals of the devil. Krampus - roughly translated as ‘Claw’- survived an attempted banning by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and has remained a popular, if not terrifying, part of German Weihnachten (Christmas).
Slavic Christmas folklore tells of the giant, Djed Moroz, who pre-dates Christianity and serves as the Russian counterpart to Saint Nick. Djed Moroz has long been depicted as a wizard in a flowing blue gown, carrying a magic staff. Celebrating Christmas during Soviet Russia however, came to be seen as bourgeois, yet Djed Moroz survived the hard-fisted anti-capitalist ruling, as it was felt impoverished Soviet children needed ‘a little magic to believe in’. Although modern day Santa Claus is generally seen as a Western concept, many Asian countries have adopted the more commercial aspects of Santa and Christmas. December 25th is not officially recognised as a holiday in China, for example, but many citizens will engage in gift giving as a nod to the seasonal custom, largely picked up through exposure to foreign media. In Taiwan, Shèngdànlǎorén (or ‘Old Christmas Man’) is a prominent sight in shopping centres and there is typically a parade in his honour, featuring girls dressed in elf costumes - billed as ‘Santa’s sisters’.
Whichever culture you identify with, there is a uniting factor in all of these Christmas gifting traditions. Kindness and philanthropy should be rewarded and the human need to believe in a little magic is as old as recorded time.