From Turkey to Finland

By Amin George Forji

According to USA Today, Santa Claus is one of the 101 most influential people that never lived.(See http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/2006-10-16-influential-people-list_x.htm). The caption alone, people who never lived”, speaks billions about the global fantansy, reverence and beliefs attached to this figure who is believed to bring gifts to children at every christmas and who no one expects to die so soon, if at all that is ever going to happen.The difference between Santa Claus, who occupies a comfortable fourth position and the others on the USA Today list is that he is not only belived to haved lived, but is imagined to always be alive, although no one seems to think of him as immortal.

1) St. Nicholas of Myra, 300AD

The first ever reference to the mythical figure of Santa Claus has been traced to St. Nicholas of Myra (present day Turkey), believed to be born sometime around 300AD. Fantansy stories about him hold that he was born an only child to a very wealthy family, but was unfortunate to have both parents die shortly after his birth, due to an outbreak of an a plague. He was taken up by an orphanage in the town monastry, and while there, is said to have shown exemplary humane qualities. No wonder that it is said that he became the youngest person ever to become a priest just at the age of 17.

Because he came from a very prosperous background, he dedicated his missionary work to distributing his wealth to children and the poor. Before long, he is said to have to become a bishop, remarkable in his thick long gown, red cap and long grey beard. There are many contrasting tales about his later life. some hold that he disappeared, others that he walked to a foreign land, and another that he died and became a Saint. Well, whatever the veracity of these claims, the fact remains that different churches, led by the catholic church since the 15th century recognised the mythical figure of saint Nicholas. The church used stories about him to encourage donations to the poor and gift-giving to childen. The month of December was typically set aside for these merry-makings.

2) Influence spread to continental Europe

Tales of St. Nicholas from Myra may sound exotic, but slowly and surely, many European countries began modeling their own “St. Nicolas”, or gift-giver to be tied to their national histories. England came up with Father Christmas, France called him Le Pere Noel, in Portugal, St. Nicolas became Pai Natal, in Germany, he was known as Weihnachtsmann, in Sapin, Papa Noel, and so on and so forth. The major innovation from St. Nicolas of Myra, being that that the traditionally month of December was now interpreted, and maybe rightly too to mean the christmas month. Hence, the generous St. Nicolas or Father Nicolas became Father Christmas.

3) From Netherlands to America

The name Santa Claus has it’s origins from The Netherlands. Unlike the rest of Europeans, the Dutch refered to St. Nicolas as Sinterklaas.The Dutch Sinterklaas was not exactly the same like the Father Christmas in other European countries.December 5 was considered by the Dutch to be both his birthday, and day he “died”. As a result, children in Holland were expected to receive their presents at least a forthnight before the other European countries.

It is this latter meaning of St. Nicolas that was adopted in America. The Americans not only approved of the Dutch meaning, but also wanted to call it exactly the same way the Dutch did. By so doing, they mispronounced Sinterklaas for Santa Claus-the name now known to the Anglo-Saxon world.

The one thing that characterised all the St. Nicolas or Santa Claus is that they were all elderly, adorned in all the colours of the rainbow, and shown to have thick grey beards, and carrying a big bag full of gifts, and a big book, containing the names of all the children.The good children were expected to have the best gifts, while the bad ones, the left-overs or even nothing.

4) Santa Claus Americanized

In 1823, the American writer, Clement Clarke Moore, for the first time ever condensed the figure of Santa Claus in a poem, called: A Visit From Saint Nicholas. The poem was a best-seller from the very day of release, mainly because it provided so many details of what people believed must be the real picture of Santa Claus. Moore in his poem described him, as ridding on the reindeer, a father with wide laughs and sweet winks, chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, big thumbs, a man whose prefered place to put the children’s gifts was the chimneys,etc, etc.

With these descriptions in place, the pictures of santa Claus increasingly became more identical the world-over. Still in America, one other writer and cartoonist, Thomas Nast, designed a new adorn picture of santa Claus each year to serve as the front cover of Harper’s weekly.

There is a story across America that Santa Claus later won the American civil war for the Union Troops of Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, President Lincoln requested cartoonist, Nast to illustrate Santa with the Union troops.When eventually he did this, many believed the picture, and it is said that even the Confederate army lost their morals when they saw Santa Claus with the North.

5) Santa Claus Gets a Home in Finland
With traditions established that Santa Claus was a gift-giving father, the next concern was to know where lived. Imageries contained in Moore’s poem were used to trace his home to the North Pole, giving that it was a place gifted in reindeers. Rovanniemi or Lapland, the northermost part of Finland was imagined to be the most appropriate place where Santa must live. In 1927, the Finnish state radio, claimed for the first time that Santa Claus in fact lived on Lapland’s Korvatunturi. Ever since then, Korvatunturi has been the undisputed home of the great old generous Santa Claus. Korvatunturi in Finnish means Ear Fell. There is actually a small waterfall on in Korvatunturi, which looks more or less like hare’s ears. These are considered in Finland to be symbolical of santa’s true ears, big enough to hear all the wishes of children, the world-over.

6) The Finnish Joulupukki
It is interesting to know how santa Claus came to be synonomous with Finland. Santa Claus in Finnish is known as Joulupukki, that is, Christmas Father (Not exactly Father Christmas). Joulupukki was originally understood to mean the Yule Goat, named after an old Finnish pagan tradition of people dressing in goat skins, horns and masks to cast away evil spirits. Even more than that, the Yule Goat moved from house to house in Finland demanding gifts (not giving them). people happily donated to the Yule goat, because his presence meant the casting away of evil spirits. But he was such an ugly creature that many Finnish kids were rather scared away from his presence.
The traditions only changed after the popular radio programs in Finland since 1927, aimed at reveresing the Finnish meaning of Joulupukki to a benevolent father from Korvatunturi.

The home of Santa in Finland is still disputed by some across the world. Norway for example claims he lives in her own portion of lapland.
Whichever of these claims is true, we may never know, but one thing remains certain, Santa will continue to play a big influence at every christmas, irrespective of where he lives, whether or not he even exists.
Well, living in Finland at the moment, i guess, am closer to meeting Santa. With December 25th still two days away, i dont yet rule out meeting him.

[Edited by Simon – typos]

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