No discussion of Santa Claus would be complete without some mention of Coca Cola. I’ve heard more than once that Coca Cola invented the contemporary image of Santa Claus as part of a holiday-themed ad campaign. Snopes.com, however, notes that while Coca Cola did start using Santa Claus in their ads in the 1930s, images of what we now think of as the “traditional” jolly old elf were appearing on magazine covers and in advertisements throughout the first few decades of the twentieth century.
Yet while Coca Cola may not have “invented” Santa Claus, I wouldn’t be surprised if they helped to proliferate his image. What’s more, with the kind of corporate backing that a company like Coca Cola could provide, it isn’t surprising that the concept of Santa Claus eventually helped to turn Christmas into the commercial bonanza that it is today.
To sum up, though I’ve probably left a lot of the “ingredients” that have fed into our contemporary conception of Santa Claus out of this discussion, a few of the major ones are illustrated below. Saint Nicholas gave us his name. Krampus gave us the chimney. Odin gave us a fondness for winking and an odd predilection for associating footwear with the holidays, Martin Luther reminded us to keep the Christ in Christmas and thereby unwittingly gave us Chris Kringle, and Coca Cola helped turn Santa Claus into an agent of commercialism.
Personally, I’m rooting for Krampus to make a comeback.
So there’s Saint Nicholas, who was known for his generosity, Krampus, who was known for sliding down chimneys, and Odin who had one eye and a horse with eight legs. But none of this explains why Santa Claus sometimes goes by the name Chris Kringle.
This one, I think, we can trace back to Martin Luther. In line with his interest in reforming Christianity, Luther was way ahead of his time when it came to putting the Christ back in Christmas. One of his big concerns around the Christmas season was that Germans were more interested in the feast of Saint Nicholas, which was celebrated on December 6, than in the birth of Christ. To fix this problem, he told everyone to remember the Christkindl or Christ Child.
My guess is that Luther’s exhortations worked for a little while, but when Germans started emigrating to America, the Americans misheard “Christkindl” as Chris Kringle. Somewhere along the line, Chris Kringle got conflated with Santa Claus, and we ended up with this song, which you may recall from your childhood:
The reason Santa Claus is frequently depicted as winking is that he’s also based to some extent on Odin, the king of the Norse gods. Odin, as you may know, traded one of his eyes for wisdom. As a result, he frequently appears to be winking, much like Santa Claus. He also has a long, white beard like the one Santa Claus sports, whereas the beard of Saint Nicholas is usually depicted as being fairly trim.
Another interesting thing about Odin is that he was known to ride on a horse with eight legs. Though I’m not entirely sure how a horse with eight legs would manage to get around, the number eight suggests Santa Claus’s eight flying reindeer. And, yes, the connection is a bit of a stretch, but I admitted that yesterday.
What’s more significant is that Norse and Germanic festivals celebrating the Winter Solstice included an opportunity for children to fill their boots with hay and sugar on Solstice Eve as a gift to Odin’s horse, who was hungry from Carrying Odin around on the great Wild Hunt associated with the season. Returning the favor, Odin would leave gifts for the children who had been so kind to his horse.