By Guest Writer Phil Dickie*
Think Santa Claus. Think an overweight gent with a white beard wearing a distinctive red coat with white fur trim and a hat to match.
In the English speaking world, that’s it. But while the tubby one is certainly known in continental Europe, he is not alone. Often, he is not even there in the Christmas accessory departments and when you make discrete inquiries you might be told “Oh, you mean the Coca-Cola Santa Claus.”
A rough census through a well-stocked Swiss Christmas department turned up around 40 distinct Santas, absolutely none in the generic costume of the English speaking world. Most had white whiskery bits, but a goatee could be as acceptable as a flowing white beard. Some were even thin, many sported gold and silver threads and autumn colours were certainly popular.
While we have opted for the single depiction Santa, Europe continues to provide some support for the rich, varied and multilayered traditions that lie between a couple of fourth century bishops and a Coca-Cola casting couch. Our Santa, it must be said, doesn’t look very saintly anymore. On the other hand, some of the multiple Santas of Europe also would look much more at home in a pagan romp through the woods than they would preaching from a pulpit.
It is generally accepted that the original St Nicholas was the fourth century Bishop of Myra. A few remnants of Myra have somehow survived the lack of development controls on building greenhouses around the modern Turkish town of Kale – including the mostly Byzantine elements of the basilica where St Nicholas, benefactor of seamen and prostitutes, was buried in 343 AD.
But St Nicholas is no longer there. Freebooting Italians removed his bones, or at least some bones, in the 11th century. Freebooters from Bari just beat freebooters from Venice with an identical plan, so it was Bari that got to follow the usual trajectory of development in those days – bung the bones in a new crypt, build a new basilica overhead and sit back and enjoy the pilgrim trade. Maybe the Venetians were still sore about this when they diverted a crusade against the Muslims into sacking Christian Byzantium (now Muslim Istanbul) a couple of centuries later.
St Nicholas, meantime, spent the centuries appearing, disappearing and performing unexpected miracles all over Europe. To give the pilgrim trade something to fasten on to in a suitably lucrative way, churches, shrines and even villages dedicated to St Nicholas sprang up. But you have got to be careful. A Swiss St Niklaus kirch is just as likely to be for the 15th century soldier, statesman and saint who helped fit the pope up with a Swiss bodyguard. Having arranged a powerful friend, he then advised the infant nation to prosper by leaving the neighbours alone and staying out of their wars.
Other times, the stories are deliciously obscure. The Matterhorn Valley church of St Niklaus (of Myra) was meant to be constructed safely in the middle of a field but the builders kept losing their tools. Then a boy survived a rockfall, exclaimed “Holy Nicholas wouldn’t permit it” and the church was built on the site of this miracle. The church has had an accident prone existence ever since, being flattened by an avalanche in 1720. The 36-metre steeple of the much rebuilt church is now dressed up as the world’s tallest Santa Claus each December – but still looks more bishop than billboard.
Others will tell you that the ancestor of Santa Claus wasn’t St Nicholas of Myra but Bishop Basil of Caesarea. The Roman Empire had many towns called Caesarea but this one is also in modern day Turkey, not that far north of Myra as it happens. Basil, who lived around the same time as Nicholas, is rather better documented in early church records as an actual preaching, politicking and existing cleric than his rival.
In central Northern Europe, children allegedly began receiving mid-winter gifts from a former demon who had turned virtuous under the influence of a usually un-named saint. This may well have been a Christian rewrite job on earlier tales that the undisciplined Norse god Wodin was also uncharacteristically kind to children when the seasons were hard.
A mix of the Mediterranean and the northern traditions is believed to have provided the basis of both the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklasse. Sinterklasse emigrated to New Amsterdam, and Father Christmas presumably followed when the American city changed its name to New York.
Not even Coca-Cola claims to have created Santa Claus in the modern image, although he was certainly popularised in 1930s advertising designed to lift the mid-winter appeal of refrigerated soft drinks. Coca-Cola, pundits will be delighted to know, was mainly responsible for the girth of the red-robed one, although the artists were trying to convey jolliness rather than the consequences of drinking too much Coke.
The American Santa then travelled everywhere that Coke did, which was everywhere US service personnel were sent or stationed during and after the Second World War. In other words, nearly everywhere there is.
Coke’s artists were working up an image that had been built up by a succession of earlier American poets and artists who transformed Sinterklaas and his English relative into Santa Claus. A satirist gave him a wagon in 1812, a poet turned that into a sleigh in 1821 and another poet added eight reindeer and a preference for diving down chimneys a year later. Santa gave up smoking (a pipe) in 1849, got the basic costume from a commercial artist in 1863 and a North Pole address from another poet in 1869.
“Which Santa sells best?” I ventured to ask Maurice Schilliger, proprietor of the Swiss store where I conducted my census. He wasn’t sure. “I do design, not commerce,” he said. Maybe, but maybe he also majored in diplomacy.
“Er, where are all these Santas made?” I asked. I was thinking, I must confess, of some vast factory floor in China where the proletarian masses are stitching up Santas to any requirement.
“The North Pole,” he said. Of course. Where else.
*Phil Dickie is an expatriate Australian journalist and author best known for ‘outing’ corrupt police and politicians in Queensland. Together with an ABC Four Corners programme, his series of investigative articles led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the 1980s and won him a Gold Walkley award. Phil, now based near Geneva, Switzerland, recently concluded a five-year stint as inaugural global issues manager with WWF International and is again available for interesting assignments or employment.
(Bob and She Who Is 10% Irish are on holiday!)