On the Invention of Santa

Santa, they tell me, used to dress in green. He also used to walk around on foot, wear a long robe, and visit children on December 6th. He didn’t originally come from the North Pole (wherever that is), or have reindeer, or carry toys; he was Turkish, believe it or not, and while he was the patron saint of children, he was also the patron saint of sailors, scholars, merchants and thieves.

Christmas is coming, and, like it or not, we’re being flooded with images, stories, and concepts that affect us and our children. Now I’m not one of those people who believe that Santa is an anagram for “Satan”, and make a whole lot out of that fact (after all, “God” is an anagram for “dog” and vice versa, and “evil” is simply “live” spelled backwards — we can do a whole lot with this game); but it’s always useful to know where the things that take prominence in our lives come from, and what purpose they used to serve.

It’s useful because by doing so we’re able to loosen some of the power these things have over us, and claim some of it for ourselves.

Santa Claus is one of these things. Here, on the fringes of American culture, Santa is as much a part of our Christmas imagery as anything else. While we may not make him as central to our celebrations as Americans do — we’re Christians, after all, and for many of us that means that we want to focus on the religious aspects of the season, not the secular ones — we still find his image and his colours everywhere we turn. So it’ll be useful to get some idea of where these two things originated.

Santa Claus as we know him has three main origins. The first is the story of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a Christian who lived in fourth-century Turkey. His entire life, it’s said, was lived according to Christian principles. Nicholas dedicated his life to the service of God, and spent his inheritance on helping the sick, the poor, and the suffering. According to legend, he loved children — he gave good ones presents, and bad ones got switches instead. He walked on foot, and didn’t drive any sleigh at all. He died on December 6th, and that date is celebrated as his day in parts of Europe.

The second is nineteenth-century America. In the early nineteenth century, the major influence on Christmas ritual was Dutch, like many of the early settlers. Santa Claus is the Americanization of the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas — Sinterklaas. But the first images of this person portrayed a fat bearded elf who squeezed himself down chimneys, the kind of person who appears in the poem “The Night Before Christmas”. But that Santa wasn’t the one we know today. He didn’t wear a red suit, he didn’t wear a cap, he wasn’t a big fat man; he was a little fat elf.

The third is Coca-Cola. Ever notice how Santa’s the colour of a Coke label? Well, there’s a reason for that, and it’s that the red suit trimmed with white fur was an invention of the Coca-Cola company. The idea was to sell more soft drinks, but what ended up happening was the selling of the idea itself. Santa’s red costume is the product of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. And as for his home in the North Pole (which is a block of ice anyway, as the North Pole is located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean) and his elves and his sleigh and the reindeer, they are all inventions that have been tacked on throughout the years.

What’s my point?

Well, think of it this way. Santa Claus may be an American invention, and one that has spread, like American culture, to most countries of the world in some form or another, but he’s a composite of a number of different concepts from another different places. Like Bahamians, Americans come from elsewhere. Like the Lucayans, the native Americans have been killed off and driven away, and their traditions do not form any part of mainstream American life. American culture, like ours, is a hybrid culture, something created out of the various bits and pieces the various peoples of the USA brought with them. Santa Claus is only one example; there are lots of others.

My point, then, is this. Just as Santa was imagined and re-imagined over the years, so we Bahamians can create our own traditions out of the fragments of our histories. Just as the Americans dug into the various mythologies of Europe to come up with their image of Santa Claus, infusing it with bits and pieces they added themselves, so we can create our own festivals and traditions.

So Christmas is coming. Every screen that we face reminds us of that fact, and there’s a sense of urgency in the air. Traffic is thickening on the roads; it took me as long to get home the other night as it did to get to work that morning, probably because I happened to be heading in the same direction as the mall. Flights in and out of the country are booked, and people are already having their luggage bumped because the gifts are piling up in the cargo holds. Christmas is coming, Santa is out, and we’re spending our free money on gifts.

Isn’t it time we created our own traditions and symbols to help us celebrate this very special time in our very own way?

Christmas is coming. Joy to the world.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all men.

2 thoughts on “On the Invention of Santa”

  1. I hate to bust your bubble, but one of your point is not entirely true.

    Santa’s Modern Image was NOT invented by CocaCola, While they helped that Image become mainstream, the red and white clad Santa was one of many version of the Jolly Character that were already competing to be the “universal” Mr. Clause image. CocaCola merely helped to bump this particular version of Santa Claus (with their successful ad campaign) into the widely accepted Version of the figure we recognize today.

    N.

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