Santa the Shaman Comes to the New World: The Shapeshifting Magic-Man from the Ancient Past
In 1626, a ship filled with folks from the Netherlands put into what would later be called New York Harbor and went about building a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam. The figurehead on the prow of their ship was none other than the patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas. The Dutch called him "Sinter Claes." Thus, "Santa Claus" came to the new world.
Saint Nicholas ( Public Domain )
But he almost disappeared as quickly as he settled in. He remained a part of American holiday traditions for only thirty-eight years. Then the new colony was ceded to England, changed its name to New York, and became inundated with an English population who knew nothing of "Sinter Claes" and despised what they considered to be pagan traditions surrounding the winter solstice.
Raising Santa From the Dead
It took more than a hundred and fifty years to raise the figure of Santa Claus from the dead here in America, and it required a historian, a poet, a cartoonist, and a marketing department to do it. To greatly simplify a convoluted story, it happened like this:
Washington Irving was an American essayist/historian who briefly mentioned the Dutch customs surrounding Saint Nicholas in his Knickerbocker History of New York . Few people read the book and that might have been the end of our whole Santa story were it not for Clement C. Moore. In 1823, while reading Irving's Knickerbocker History, Moore was inspired to write a poem called A Visit From Saint Nicholas . In it (largely to make his lines scan correctly), he labeled Santa a "right jolly old elf."
A right jolly old elf. (Elena Chochkova/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Forty years later the poem was scheduled to be included in a holiday issue of Harper's Magazine. The editor felt an illustration would be helpful so he called on the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who hadn't the foggiest idea what a Dutch "jolly old elf" should look like. Remembering his own holiday traditions, however, Nast drew up a Bavarian-based gnome who dressed in animal skins and frightened naughty children with a broom stick. The poem was a hit, if not the cartoon, and over the years illustrations of Santa were cleaned up a little so as to appear more child-friendly.
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The whole Santa tradition evolved to the point where, in 1897, Francis Church, writing for The New York Sun newspaper, felt moved to respond to a question from a young reader named Virginia O'Hanlon. "Please tell me the truth," Miss O'Hanlon asked. "Is there a Santa Claus?" Church's answer was the now famous article, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
Santa Gets into Sales
It wasn't until 1931, however, that Santa got his big publicity break. The Coca-Cola company wanted to increase sales to children but were boxed in by a law that forbade any public displays of children drinking their product. At that time Coca-Cola was based on coca, thought to be a narcotic plant. (They have since changed their recipe!) Because the company's marketing department couldn't show children drinking coke, they featured a child-friendly Santa with a red suit, smile, ruddy cheeks, and a winning demeanor. He was pictured taking a well-deserved break from his Christmas duties, drinking a bottle of coke that a friendly child had left for him. Coke sales went through the roof and the rest, as they say, is history. Santa and Coca-Cola went on to conquer the world together.
Santa has a part-time stint in marketing. ( Source)
Santa the Shaman
The earliest traditions of the many components of the Santa myth, however, go back in time much further than the Dutch holiday customs. Indeed, long before he came to America—Santa was a Shaman.
Father Christmas riding a goat ( Public Domain )
Consider just a few of the motifs of the "Christ-Mass" that have nothing to do with Christian mythology:
Holly was burned in ritual sacrifice. (Photo: Liz Leafloor)
- The Fire Tree : The gift of fire was probably the most important discovery in the history of the human race. Long ago the tribal Shaman, or holy man, would lead ceremonies in which gifts would be placed on an evergreen tree or bush such as holly, ivy, or mistletoe, and then burned in ritual sacrifice, returning to the gods a portion of what the people had received. These trees and plants featured their colorful berries in the winter, so they were deemed holy at this time of year. The ceremony took place on the night of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, in order to insure that the sun would soon return and bring its welcoming warmth with it. When the custom of actually bringing the tree inside the house began, candles were substituted for fire. Nowadays, electric lights are much safer.