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The History of Santa Claus: Germanic & Dutch Traditions
In our previous article, we explored how the historical figure St. Nicholas became the basis for Santa Claus. However, Santa’s story is far from over. Many other cultures and traditions contributed to folklore surrounding Santa Claus.
Numerous parallels have been drawn between Santa Claus and the Norse God Odin. During the Germanic holiday of Yule, which was celebrated at the same time of year as Christmas, Odin would lead a great hunting party through the sky. Odin is described as riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances. According to some traditions, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Sleipnir. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy. This practice still survives in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of France, although it is now associated with Saint Nicholas rather than Odin. In other countries, this tradition has been replaced by the hanging of stockings by the chimney.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) is an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop’s outfit and carries a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top. The “naughty or nice” tradition stems from this Dutch figure. Sinterklaas keeps notes in the Book of Saint Nicholas about the behavior of each child and distributes presents to those who have been good, while the naughty children risk being caught by his aides, who will switch them with willow canes. Like Odin, Sinterklaas also rides a flying horse over the rooftops and delivers gifts through the chimney.
In our next article, we will take a look at Father Christmas and the development of the modern British and American figure of Santa Claus that is so familiar today.