Did Saint Nicholas sail from Turkey to the North Pole?
The story of Santa Claus began in the 3rd century with a bishop named Saint Nicholas. He was born in the town of Patara in the present day Antalya Province of Turkey. Saint Nicholas was known for his love of humanity and generosity. He wandered around to help those in need and gave away all of his wealth. St. Nicholas was also known as the protector of sailors and children. When he passed away on December 6th he was given his own name day. Consequently children receive presents on Saint Nicholas’ Day (Sankt Nikolaus Tag) in Germany and other European countries.
The original St. Nicholas has evolved into a somehow mythical figure and various sources and folklore stories have added colorful traits and features to his image. He took on some traits of god Odin who appeared as a wandering men with a long white beard. Like Odin Santa Claus had adopted magical powers and was able to fly. In Scandinavian mythology Odin is a god associated with wisdom but interestingly – furious violence as well. The Gandalf character in the film Lord of the Rings is also, like Santa Claus, inspired by the image of the wandering Odin.
Some sources say that the Dutch Sinterklaas laid the basis for the American-style image of Santa Claus. The Swedish artist Haddon Sundblom created iconic images of the Santa Claus for a well-known American soft drink brand. Although most people have never heard of Sundblom, they have seen his typical drawings of Santa Claus with the red dress, round belly and sympathetic face. These images became closely associated with Santa Claus’ supposed appearance today. The cartoonist Thomas Nast is commonly credited for coming up with the toy workshop idea and Santa Claus’ residence at the North Pole. The northernmost point on our planet where all directions point south seemed to be the ideal place for worldwide distribution of presents.
In the early 19th century Clement Moore wrote a poem called The Night Before Christmas. Moore was an American Professor of Asian and Greek Literature. The poem stressed the joyful image of Santa Claus in which he is described as follows: »He had a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him in spite of myself, a wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.«
In Moore’s poem Santa Claus’ travelled with a sleigh that was driven by reindeer. According to Moore this is what happened: »He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew, like the down of a thistle. But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight – Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.«
Many stories of the original Saint Nicholas, the man from Turkey, will remain hidden. What matters is that his good deeds earned him a place in the heart of sailors and children. Today Santa Claus may stand as a metaphor for happiness and caring for other people…
Text: Jan-Christoph Daniel
The Night Before Christmas – Original Lyrics
National Geographic – St. Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus