People say that if we trace our lineage back far enough, we'll find that we are related, more or less closely, to some famous historic personage, like Charlemagne or Alexander the Great. Well, a legendary celebrity like Santa Claus can trump this—his birth is linked to a saint and close encounters with a goddess of ancient Greek mythology.
Santa, whom we all know as the bringer of gifts at Christmas, was active in another guise centuries before he ever climbed down his first chimney. The story begins some 1,700 years ago with the birth of a certain Nicholas, at Patara in southern Turkey. He was a precocious and pious infant, standing with hands folded in prayer on the day he was born and refusing his mother's milk on fast days. Before long, Nicholas was anointed as bishop, and in the drive to spread Christianity, he razed the temples of ancient pagan deities. One of the temples demolished in his home town was dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis (Diana, in Roman mythology), who protected sailors, women and children and left gifts for her worshippers.
Eventually Nicholas was made a saint, and legends about him grew. Curiously, in these legends, his role and deeds came to resemble more and more those of Artemis, whose cult he'd tried to destroy. He became the patron saint of sailors and a beneficent father figure for all, especially women and children. According to one legend, he saved three sisters from a fate worse than death by giving each a bag filled with gold for a marriage dowry. In medieval Paris, his feast day, December 6, was a school holiday, winning him the gratitude of all students. And in Germany, the night before December 6, children still put a shoe outside the window for St. Nicholas to fill with sweets.
Perhaps because the dates of his feast day and Christmas were close together, and because he was known for bestowing gifts, St. Nicholas eventually metamorphosed into the popular Father Christmas, otherwise known as Santa Claus (Klaus is the German diminutive for Nicholas).
Many of the Christmas traditions familiar to us—like the decorated Christmas tree—came from Germany to England in the 1800s, when Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, ruled over a large part of the world.
America, too, contributed significantly. In 1862, the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the Christmas cover for Harper's Weekly magazine, with an image of Santa Claus transformed from the thin, ascetic St. Nicholas to a plump and jolly man, beaming with cheerfulness and goodwill. Santa's appearance has not changed since.
Today, Santa is known exclusively as the "handmaiden" of consumerism. His personality is appropriated, even exploited, by merchants world-wide trying their hardest to lure us into buying, buying, buying – anything and everything, before December 25.
I like to think that Santa dreams of the days when life was less rushed and he could count on a pagan deity or two crossing his path. The night before Christmas, as you put a cup of cocoa and some cookies out for Santa, how about adding a glass of nectar and a bit of ambrosia for the goddess Artemis—just in case?
This page last updated: January 5, 2012.