Santa Myths and Legends
Countless legends (no documents exist) are told about this Patron Saint of Giving known as St. Nicholas. Within both Western and Easter Christian Churches similar mythology, or tradition, exists. According to these legends, St. Nicholas was born in the city of Patara, and traveled to Palestine and Egypt when he was young.
In Greek, St. Nicholas is known as Hagios Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra (in the present day Turkey), St Nicholas reportedly died about 350 AD. Today, this mythical character is still alive and well and is known all over the world as: Nicholas of Myra, Santa Claus or "Santa" in America. His fame spread rapidly during the Middle Ages and thousands of churches are dedicated to him. He has been the patron saint of Russia, Moscow, Greece, children, sailors, prisoners, bakers, pawnbrokers, shopkeepers and wolves. His gift-giving role in Christmas rites probably follows from his fame as the friend of children. The story also tells that he used to give anonymous donations of gold coins to persons in need. His cult spread in Europe and Christmas presents were distributed on December 6th when the celebration of St. Nicholas took place.
In many countries this day is still the day of Christmas gift-giving, although there is a mounting pressure everywhere to conform to the custom of 24th/25th December. The relics of St.Nicholas are in the basilica of St. Nicola, in Bari, Italy (they were stolen from Myra in 1087 AD). For this reason he is sometimes known as St.Nicholas of Bari.
Santa Claus is sometimes referred to as Kriss Kringle, a name most likely derived from Christ Kindl (Christ-child). The German name of the Christ Child is Christkind, commonly used in its diminutive form Christkindel. The Dutch-German protestant reform movement brought in the idea that the Christchild should be the standard bearer for Christmas. Traditionally an image used for his messenger was a young child with a golden crown who holds a tiny "Tree of Light", and brings the gifts of the Christ Child.
The transformation from Christkindl to Kris Kringle did not take many generations, especially with intermarriage between the Pennsylvania Dutch and the English settlers in the America. So despite the intentions of the Protestant reform movement, the original meaning of the word faded. Once thought to be the Christchild's chief helper, the image of Kris Kringle has over time reverted to an image of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus).\
The name Kris Kringle is still strangely popular as the Santa Claus of some Pennsylvania Dutch web Pages today. He carries a tiny Christmas tree and enters the house through a window left open. When he has left the presents, he rings a bell allowinq the household to know of his departure. Thus "Kris Kringle" a name deriving from the German Christ Kindel is another name for Santa Clause.
The use of the name was magnified and publicised by the American movie, "Miracle on 34th Street", a story of a man named Kris Kringle who gets a job playing Santa Claus at Macy's department store in New York City and again in the 1970 animated film "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" of a legend where the orphaned baby, Kris, adopted by the "Kringle" toymaker family, grows up to distribute toys to the underprivleged.
So, whilst "Santa Clause" is more popular and recognisable the world over, to some people Kriss Kringle or Kris Kringle (an anglacised version of the german words for Christ Child) has become used as another synonym for Santa Claus
Generally Father Christmas is known as a bearded old man in a fur costume who appears in Yuletide and gives presents. His characteristics can be divided roughly into two groups: Those with traditional religious significance, and those with pagan origin.
The Russian Grandfather Frost has strong Pagan relations. He is always accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka (Snow girl), a merry 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 much more related to Christmas. Grandfather Frost and Snegurochka visit children asking them to sing or read a poem, sometimes asking if they were good, and of course giving presents.
This name comes from the country Finland. Literally meaning: Yule Buck. This Old pagan tradition remained strong in Finland but got a Christian flavor as time went by. Pagan people used to have festivities to ward off evil spirits. In Finland these spirits of darkness wore goat skins and horns. In the beginning this creature didn't give presents but demanded them. The Christmas Goat 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. The process was probably a continuous amalgamation of many old folk customs and beliefs from varied sources. One can speak of a Christmas pageant tradition consisting 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.
Popular radio programs from the year 1927 onwards probably had great influence in reformatting the concept with the Santa-like costume, reindeer and Korvatunturi (Mount Ear, near Polar Circle) as its dwelling place. Because there really are reindeer in Finland, and we are living up North, the popular American cult took root in Finland very fast. Maybe some caring soul decided the Joulupukki is just too scary for little kids.
Today, Finland is one of the few countries where kids actually see Father Christmas in the act of delivering the presents and probably the only country where the Saint really does ask the children if they behaved during the year.
French children receive gifts from Père Noël. Père Noël travels with a companion called Père Fouettard who reminds Pere Noel of just how each child has behaved during the past year. Well behaved children receive presents. Children who have behaved badly could be spanked by Père Fouettard. In some parts of France Père Noël brings small gifts on St. Nicholas Eve (December 6) and visits again on Christmas. French children don't leave out socks, they leave their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts from Pere Noel. They often leave out a glass of wine for Pere Noel and a carrot for the reindeer. In the morning they also find that sweets, fruit, nuts and small toys have been hung on the tree.
In Italy Babbo Natale, which means Father Christmas, is Santa. Children put a pair of their shoes by the door on the day before Epiphany and the following morning they find them filled with small gifts and candy. Italy, like Spain, Portugal and most of the Latin American nations ( or countries speaking Romance languages), is mostly Catholic. December 25 is a day of more religious observance, remembering the birth of Christ. The Epiphany, called Little Christmas, is the day for gift giving. However, Babbo Natale does come on Christmas Eve in some parts of Italy.
In Dutch. He is much thinner than the American Santa Claus. He rides a white horse and gets help from numerous Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) handing out gifts and candy. He arrives the first Saturday in November by Boat. In the evenings, Dutch Children sing songs in front of the fire place or in the living room and leave their shoe with a present (drawing for Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet or a Carrot for Amerigo Sinterklaas' horse) In the mornings they will find their shoe filled with candy and small presents. On the 5th of December Dutch households have a “Pakjesavond” (Presents night) and exchange presents.
Origins of Santa's many funny traditions and customs:
Gifts: From St. Nicholas and the Magi (The three wise men from the Orient in the New Testament).
Beard: St. Nicholas is traditionally seen as bearded. The Magi are also bearded!
Costume: The general form of the cloak probably derives from St. Nicholas, although the traditional costumes of the three Magi also may have contributed. The fur linings probably are add-ons to fit the Northern American Myth. Santa suits generally consist of a red and white hat, coat and fur trimmed trousers with a black belt, black boots, ang long white beard.
Reindeer: Santa must use some form of transport. He comes from the North, so why not reindeer? In Scandinavia and Germany Santa comes on the 24th of December, knocking on the door like normal people.
The Stocking and chimney: In England and America the visit is a secret and is done at night. Why he comes in via the chimney probably stems from Clement C. Moore's enormously popular poem.
North Pole: The home of the American Father Christmas. Probably connected with the general "Northern Exposure" of American Christmas lore. Also, the fact that Christmas is so very much Winter's festivity must contribute.
Cap: Probably from the bishop's Mitre of St. Nicholas. Curiously enough the Mitre resembles and possibly derives from the headgear of old Magi (mages, Persian priests. the other Christmas present givers). The Phrygian headgear of French Revolution fame might be another influence.