Père Noël with the bushy beard and red suit we all know and love!
The first time I spent Christmas in England, I had lots of new things to learn - like the fact that British people have their Christmas dinner on the wrong day! - but some things felt just like being at home. One of those things is Father Christmas. We call him Père Noël in France, but these days Santa is Santa all over the world. But it wasn't always that simple. When my kids were starting to grow out of believing in Santa, I did some reading to find out just how we ended up celebrating this unusual festive figure.
Step 1: St Nicholas
The story of Santa Claus starts with St Nicholas of Myra. This fourth-century Mediterranean saint (both Greece and Turkey claim him as a local boy) had a reputation for secret gift-giving, slipping coins into people's shoes when they were left out and performing other acts of kindness. After he died, these stories grew and developed into legends, including the most famous: that St Nicholas decided to pay the dowries of three poor sisters in order to keep their family together. Two years in a row, as each girl came of age, he threw a purse of gold through their window in the night to support her - but when the girls' father lay in wait to catch and thank the mystery gift-giver, St Nicholas climbed onto his roof and dropped the final purse down the chimney. Some versions of the myth claim that the youngest daughter had been drying her stockings before the fire, and the gold landed neatly in one of them! Even seventeen hundred years ago, almost all the elements of the Santa Claus myth were already in place.
Step 2: Sinterklaas
It isn't too much of a jump to see how 'St Nicholas', or especially 'St Nikolaos', can turn into Sinterklaas, and that's exactly what happened in medieval Europe. Still a very religious figure, Sinterklaas became part of the Christian tradition whilst also borrowing from the Germanic peoples' pre-Christian past. Although he comes on St Nicholas' Day, Sinterklaas looks more like the god Odin, who also has a long beard, a staff and a fine horse. In these traditions, Sinterklaas was said to come from Spain because half of the real St Nicholas' bones and relics had been moved there - this is still the story today, just as we tend to say Father Christmas comes from Lapland or the North Pole.
Sinterklaas at a Dutch celebration
Step 3: Santa Claus
Nobody seems to agree on just how Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. The rise of Protestantism in Europe was certainly a factor, as the Catholic-influenced 'Sinterklaasfeest' was banned for years in countries like the Netherlands, then allowed to return as a more secular and family-based celebration. And it's certain America had something to do with it! The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions from all over Europe - our Père Noël, who likes to have carrots left for his donkey, the English Father Christmas who encourages merrymaking, and of course St Nick himself.
Vintage Santa Claus Christmas card
Merry Christmas, from Eurotunnel Le Shuttle
Although every country has hung onto its own Christmas traditions and characters, I think it's rather wonderful that they've also combined into a figure that's recognised and loved across the world. If you're interested in finding out more about Europe's many Christmas traditions, it's never been easier to take a quick festive break on the continent - Calais is just 35 minutes away with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle, and you might even be able to pick up some stocking-fillers whilst you're there! However you celebrate this year, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.
Père Noël @ Luis Medina
Sinterklaas @ Pablo
Santa Claus @ davidd