Since we’re coming up on Christmas really, really fast (*panicking* I don’t have all of my shopping done), I thought I’d give y’all one more Amaze-ing Words Wednesday post on Christmas words in the English language. This time, let’s take a look at what we call that jolly old elf who visits children on Christmas Eve, leaving goodies in their stockings and presents under the tree.
Santa Claus and other representations of him have formulated over time. Nicholas, the Bishop of Smyrna (in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century A.D., is where the legend begins. Bishop Nicholas had a kind heart toward the poor and sometimes threw gifts through their windows for the children. After his death, the Catholic Church recognized him as a patron saint of children. And now for the names . . .
Santa Claus. Santa Claus came from the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, which is “Sinter Klaas.” In the 17th century, Dutch settlers to America brought the legend of Sinter Klaas with them. In 1773, a media source referred to him as “St A Claus.” Then in 1821, William Gilley printed a poem with “Santeclaus.” Over time, the name became Americanized as Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas, or simply St. Nick, also derives from the legend. However, we can thank author Washington Irving for making St. Nicholas a popular name. In his book A History of New York (1809), he described a saint who arrived on the Eve of St. Nicholas – albeit on horseback, not a sleigh. Then Clement Moore wrote his famous poem in 1823 titled A Visit from Saint Nicholas, which we know better by its opening line: “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” St. Nick made his appearance there, and the name was cemented into our culture.
Kris Kringle. Kris (or Kriss) Kringle is an Anglicized version of the German word “Christkindl” or Christ child. Choosing the baby Jesus instead as the symbol of Christmas, Christian Reformer Martin Luther promulgated the idea that the Christ Child brings the presents to children. Instead, the legend grew to suggest that the sprite Christ child accompanied St. Nicholas, and then the two names simply became interchangeable. In The Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Santa Claus give his name to be Kris Kringle, and in the animated Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) the baby Kris is adopted and raised by the Kringle toymaker family. He later becomes Santa Claus (and the pretty town teacher his Mrs. Claus).
Father Christmas. Father Christmas was originally part of an English midwinter festival and was also called Old Man Winter or Father Winter. He was dressed in green – a portent of the coming spring – and went from house to house feasting with families. In 1843 Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol and based the Ghost of Christmas Present on Father Christmas. (Remember him, with the long flowing green robe and the verdant wreath on his head?) By the late Victorian era, Father Christmas was dressed in red, like his Santa Claus counterpart. Of course, the two legends simply merged, and now Father Christmas = Santa Claus.
Of course, Santa Claus has names in other languages – the aforementioned Sinter Klaas in Dutch, Dun Che Lao Ren in Chinese, Pere Noel in French, Babbo Natale in Italy, Papai Noel in Brazil. There are interesting traditions in other places that go along with their version of Santa Claus as well.
What name for Santa Claus appeals to you most? What other names have you heard for the yuletide gift-bringer?