Who the heck was Santa Claus?

By Dan Morrison

Santa Claus is the myth that every western/Christian child lives as a truth. At some point their world turns upside down, shatters, crumbles all around them or some other half-arsed cliché about your life changing irrevocably when the truth reveals itself.

As a child, you were critical enough to doubt Santa’s identity. You smelt a rat as soon as you saw that shape in the night that you recognised as the tooth fairy creeping around in the wee hours of Christmas day, not stowing away teeth in a sandwich bag but a leftist rebel taking a stand against the capitalist narrative.

You are older now, and you know he (apologies for assuming Father Christmas’ gender) actually exists. He’s subversive, he’s in the spaces. He’s subtly disrupting the American dream: the planned economy does work, and Santa is proof.

We venerate him for his screw the system can-do attitude, for giving us a break from the forces that are beyond our control but deciding our fate. At the same time, though, Santa Claus scholar Olly Bongo-Henderson* has dubbed him as the “festive, fatherly figure of Capitalism”.


But who actually was this fella? Is he the rebel we need today?

Back in the 4th century, he was more commonly known as Nicholas- Saint Nicholas, that is. He was a Greek Christian bishop who lived in modern day Turkey and inherited loads of money after his parents died when he was young.

In his own lifetime he gained quite the rep. On one occasion he saved three impoverished girls from prostitution, giving dowries, as purses of gold, to their father so they wouldn’t have to sell themselves. Allegedly, he would throw the purses into the house, either over a course of three nights, or yearly the night before a girl would ‘become of age’. On the third occasion- again, allegedly- he popped the purse down the chimney, or in a stocking hung by the house, so he would avoid detection.

Another legend has it that a butcher invited three boys into his house and slaughtered them. In trying to cover up his crime, the butcher planned to sell them off as pieces of ham, having taken the time to cure them in a barrel. Old Nick here came along and suspected a ruse. Not only did he see through the butcher, but while he was there he also managed to resurrect the three boys from inside the barrel as well- what a bloke.

(Of course, in this barmy post-truth world of fake news, literally millions and millions of news and media outlets are claiming that St Nick didn’t actually bring the dead boys back to life from inside the butcher’s barrel. Donald Trump took to Twitter recently to say “St Nick should be ashamed!! The American people are tired of him and the New York Times’ lies!! Lock him up!!”. He has also claimed the story about saving the three girls was a hoax created by the Chinese government in order to make U.S. manufacturing “non-competitive”.)

Given his history of gift-giving, it is little wonder he became the model for Santa Claus: in some circles, he is merely referred to as “the artist formerly known as St Nicholas”.

It should be said that while Santa Claus and Father Christmas are viewed as essentially the same lad today, it wasn’t always like this.

Back in the day, Father Christmas was a pagan figure who represented the coming of spring, present at mid-winter British festivals. He was thought of as someone who could lift folks’ spirits in winter, evolving into the figure King Winter, who could guarantee a milder winter in return for some goodies- like a mince pie.

In 1822, the figures of Santa Claus, King Winter and Father Christmas were united in Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem “The Night before Christmas”. It is from here that we take the modern depiction of Santa Claus (I think).

So, who was the guy?

He was a rebel and a do-gooder, a man of the people taking on the norms around him and trying to make peoples’ lives a bit better- a good bloke to look to as 2016 draws to a close.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays- have a great 2017.

*please don’t take the word “scholar” too literally