Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Santa Claus

Now common name of St Nicholas (4th century), the patron saint of children, and also of Greece, Russia, pawnbrokers, apothecaries, perfumiers and sailors. Virtually nothing is known of his life: his biography by Methodius (?   -847) is a largely fictitious account of his Miracles.

The link between St Nicholas and Christmas developed in Germany where he is known as Kriss Kringle, derived from Christkindl, or the "Christ Child". This became merged with the Dutch reverence of Sintirklass, derived from St Nicholas, whose feast day (6 December) saw presents given to children – a tradition deriving from the Three Wise Men's bearing of gifts to Christ. Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam developed the story, linking it to the legend of a Magician who punished bad children and rewarded good ones. Washington Irving reported this celebration in his quasifactual History of New York (1809). At this stage the festivity may still be regarded as pagan, but the acceptance of it as a Christian celebration came with the phenomenal success of the poem "An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas" (1823 Troy Sentinel; vt "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") by Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863). This captured the public imagination, fused the worship of SC and the birth of Christ, and introduced the modern celebration of Christmas. It was Moore who created the concept of SC coming down the chimney, thus making him small and elfin. The sleigh drawn by reindeer, however, was probably already part of Dutch Folklore drawn from Nordic legend, though its image was captured by an anonymous writer in the poem The Children's Friend (1821 chap).

Before this mythologization of SC, the UK already had the legend of Father Christmas. Its pagan roots relate to the Roman festival of Saturn, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Kronos, the personification of Time: he had a long beard and a garland of holly around his head. This image as the symbol for Christmas was sufficiently acceptable for Ben Jonson (1572-1637) to portray him in his play Christmas, His Masque (1616) as having a long beard and a crowned hat. Charles Dickens drew upon this in A Christmas Carol (1843), where he created the Ghost of Christmas Present in the form of Father Christmas, a jovial, bearded giant with a fur-trimmed robe. The artist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) drew these threads together in his depictions (1863-1866) of SC for Harper's Weekly, and these firmly embedded the figure of SC in US cultural iconography. SC soon became a figure in the children's stories and nursery rhymes of Christmas issues of newspapers and Magazines. In "St Nicholas and the Gnome" (1878 in Hannibal's Man) by Leonard Kip (1826-1906) St Nicholas's joviality is restored by a gnome. In "Behind the White Brick" (1879 St Nicholas Magazine) by Frances Hodgson Burnett a girl climbs up a chimney to a Wonderland where she meets various characters including SC.

First to write a book entirely about SC was L Frank Baum, with The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902), a Children's Fantasy which keeps most of the basic Motifs but develops a complete life history. SC is an abandoned child brought up by the Elves of the Forest of Burzee. He is given the name Neclaus, meaning "Necile's Little One", after the name of the wood-nymph who found him. When Neclaus grows to manhood he settles in Laughing Valley and spends his time making toys for children. He brings such delight to children that as he grows old the rulers of Faerie agree he should be granted the Mantle of Immortality. Baum also wrote a short story, "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" (1904 Delineator), in which SC is kidnapped by Demons, and he introduced SC into Oz in The Road to Oz (1909).

In Only Toys! (1903) by F Anstey SC helps two children continue to enjoy their toys by shrinking them down to toy-size. The children soon become ungrateful and SC punishes them by making the toys more human and aggressive. In the Father Christmas Letters (written 1920s; 1976) J R R Tolkien provides a series of episodes in SC's life at the North Pole, while in the Father Christmas books Raymond Briggs depicts a grumpy SC who hates snow.

Few adult fantasies consider SC. The classic is Roads (1938 WT; 1938) by Seabury Quinn. Klaus is a Norse gladiator in the court of King Herod who saves Christ during the Slaughter of the Innocents and is granted eternal life. Centuries later Klaus, accompanied by elves, flees the downfall of Rome to settle in Valhalla. In "Proof Negative" (1956 Science Fantasy) John Brunner (as Trevor Staines) provides proof to a man about the existence of SC. A number of short stories featuring SC are in Christmas Bestiary (anth 1992) ed Rosalind M Greenberg and Martin H Greenberg and in Christmas Stars (anth 1992), Christmas Forever (anth 1993) and Christmas Magic (anth 1994), all ed David G Hartwell. SC is also spoofed in Grailblazers (1994) by Tom Holt, where he appears as a modern Woden (> Odin) and must face Von Weinacht and the sinister reindeer Radulph.

SC has adapted patchily to the Cinema. The classic is Miracle on 34Th Street (1947), in which an old man who is recruited as a store Santa claims to be the real SC. The movie was remade in 1994. Less successful was Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), but One Magic Christmas (1985), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and The Santa Clause (1995) are worthy efforts. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.