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Origins of Santa Claus

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Ghost of Christmas Present(“Ghost of Christmas Present”, an illustration by John Leech made for Charles Dickens’s festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843))

Santa Claus, as it is commonly depicted, can be seen as a relatively modern syncretistic building with far-reaching origins: it is a cosmopolitan figure, the fruit of a mixture of many traditions and folklores. Sociologist Martyne Perrot says that “the idea that Santa Claus is American is partly true because the construction of this character is in fact related to the history of New York migrants; It is a migrant character, which took a little of all the countries where it passed and it is rich of various cultural borrowings.”

Christmas refers to the day of the nativity, that is to say, the day of the birth of Jesus: Santa Claus is therefore primarily attached to a Christian holiday. For a long time they celebrated the nativity and the Epiphany – fixed on 6 January – the same day, and by the end of the 4th century they were distinct: the Christmas Day, 25 December, it was indeed a convention. Two millennia ago, there was a celebration in Rome at the time of the winter solstice, the return of the sun, the prolongation of the day, the “undefeated sun.” There were organized festivals. In the same way, the first days of March, gifts were offered to celebrate the beginning of the year. For a long time, indeed, the year began with the first days of Spring, which also gave rise to rites. Symmachus wrote at the end of the 4th century that “in the first days of March, in the city, there was the custom to offer gifts in memory of King Tatius, who had been the first to read the signs of good auspices for the new year in the branches of the fertile tree that stood in the sacred wood of Strena.” Some Jewish and Christian exegetes wrote that the feasts of Hanukkah and the Nativity were created to counterbalance the festivities of the “undefeated sun.” In the Middle Ages, the feast of the fools gave rise to so many excesses that it was limited, even cropped.

With the arrival of Christendom, there were several reforms to try to suppress the ancient rituals.

The legend of Saint Nicholas is established since the Middle Ages: it is celebrated on December 6, but according to the Julian calendar, the day falls on … December 19. This rite comes naturally to be confused with those, older, celebration of the winter solstice. In the historiography, the “winter man” goes back to the Middle Ages, he is the worn-out man who comes to warm himself with the new fire (the consecrated fat log) and to whom presents are offered. In the eighteenth century, the idea of Christmas as the sacred day of the family made its way both in the aristocracy and among the bourgeois and artisans. During the first industrial revolution, a process was set up, combining gifts, trade and moments of generosity with children: it was the invention of the toy-filled showcase and the deeply urban chimney myth.

The historiography of Santa Claus is therefore very complex: at the end of the seventeenth century, for example, there is a “Father Christmas” in English engravings, which refers to masquerades long established at the time of the winter solstice in all British islands. The tradition of Santa Claus therefore seems to have origins in Northern Europe: however, Santa Claus as we know it today is popularized in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century when it takes the name Santa Claus, directly inspired by the Saint Nicholas of Dutch Flanders.

Translated from Wikipedia

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