Word of the day: “Santa Claus” from “Here Comes Santa Claus”
performed by Elvis
Can we just take a minute for Elvis? I’m not a huge Elvis fan (not that I don’t like him, but most of the time my take on Elvis is, “yeah, okay”), but this may be my new favorite Elvis song. I love the festive backup singers. I love the punctuated pauses he puts between the syllables on the final repeats of the chorus. I love the way he funkifies the melody on “’cause Santa Claus is comin’ to town.” If Elvis finally wins me over on “Here Comes Santa Claus,” that seems like quite the victory. We’ll see.
So I thought that the “Santa” half of Santa Claus seemed like a Romance-language approach to the word “saint” and that “Claus” seemed like an Anglicized form of the name “Klaus.” But pursuing one “Saint Klaus” turns up a variety of hits including one of a political mystic in the 1400s who had a vision of a horse eating a lily and was so moved that he became the patron saint of Switzerland. But I digress.
If Romance languages, Anglicized Germanics, and the American knack for inventing commercializable heroic figures wasn’t enough of a cultural mishmash for you, don’t worry—there’s more. Turns out that “Klaus” is a contracted short form in Scandinavian and Germanic languages for the Greek name “Nikolaus,” and of course, this is where the original St. Nick comes in who, after serving as a staunch defender of Christianity in the 300s A.D. and as the bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey, is buried in Italy of all places. Forensic scientists have even tried to reconstruct his remains to get a sense for what St. Nicholas from the third and fourth centuries actually looked like, and apparently he looks like he had a broken nose.
Tremendously popular as a saint with his feast day on the anniversary of this death, December 6, around the year 1200 St. Nicholas became known as the patron saint of children. Two originary stories involve him saving three young girls from a life of prostitution by providing their dowries or resurrecting three young boys who had just been murdered and pickled (Brothers Grimm, anyone?), and he became the gift-bringer to children. Eventually the gifts associated with St. Nicholas’ feast day got shuffled over to Christmas and, according to one article, St. Nick became a sort of sidekick to baby Jesus in the celebrations while also being occasionally conflated with other figures like the bearded Norse god Odin. Germanic traditions painted him variously as Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas), someone who brought gifts but also
frightened encouraged children into behaving well.
He became popularized in the United States via the Dutch and their “Sinterklaas,” and, as far as I can tell in large part through New York City. A full 124 years before the famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” appeared in the New York Sun, the first listing of the name Santa Claus in the OED comes on December 26, 1773 in the New York Gazette telling how “Last Monday the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall.” Santa was by no means the standardized figure he is now and was probably more associated with crazy Christmas partying. (See how little has changed below?)
In other words, Santa Claus was not yet respectable or perhaps even bespectacled. A newspaper from 1808 sniffs at the Dutch and their Santa Claus traditions: “The noted St. Nicholas, vulgarly called Santaclaus—of all the saints in the kalendar the most venerated by true hollanders, and their unsophisticated descendants.” But in 1809 Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York described St. Nicholas flying over the city smoking a pipe and bearing gifts in a wagon. This was followed by two highly popular poems from New York City in 1821 and 1822, the latter being “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore. They went viral, as much as poems could go viral in the early nineteenth century. Thus Santa Claus and his image as a “right jolly old elf” coming down the chimney with eight reindeer in tow spread far and wide. Images from the celebrated cartoonist Thomas Nast in the latter half of the 1800s further solidified his twinkling eyes, his dimples how merry and his belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly.
So, from the Greeks, Italians, Turks, Scandinavians, Germanic folks, Dutch, Americans, Elvis, and New Yorkers, here comes Santa Claus in just a couple more days. Hang your stockings, and I hope you’ve been good this year.