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A merry old man? Not necessarily. The secret history of Santa Claus

A merry old man? Not necessarily. The secret history of Santa Claus

As Christmas approaches, we’d like to take readers on a journey following the footsteps of Santa Claus in Eastern European culture. Dr Maciej Czeremski from the JU Institute of Religious Studies will be our guide.

Santa Claus is a mysterious figure, which is not only full of charm, but also some tempting darkness hidden underneath. This merry old man, originally modeled after Saint Nicholas and now looking more like an oversized dwarf, has played much more interesting roles than that of a fatty in a red outfit, whose face reveals love for liquor.

God’s assistant and ...antagonist

Several dozen years ago, Boris Uspensky, an eminent Russian semiotician, published a very interesting book entitled The Cult of St. Nicolas in Russia. In this work he gathered numerous folk sayings in which St. Nicolas is considered the main assistant, or even successor of God, for instance: ‘If God dies, St. Nicolas will rule the world’, ‘In the field, Nicholas is the only God’, ‘With God’s support, Nicholas will help.’ Sometimes Nicolas is even equated with God, as illustrated by this passage from a prayer (which reveals this phenomenon, even though it's not Russian but Polish): ‘...a chalice, with blood of the innocent Lamb, Saint Nicolas.’

Most importantly, however, Russian folklore usually presents St. Nicolas as God’s antagonist. According to Boris Uspensky, ‘in the Russian folklore Nicholas is capable of deceiving God to defend the poor, in the same way as he deceives Prophet Elijah, e.g. in the legend about Nicholas saving the cow of an old widow.’ As a result, he is the typical opponent of such figures as St. George, Archangel Michael as well as Elijah. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it.

One possible ways of explaining this phenomenon is by pointing to the specificity of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where the status of St. Nicolas was elevated, which led to the excesses of folk imagination. This is, however, untrue. St Nicolas’ position in the Orthodox Church is similar as in Catholicism – he belongs to the middle ranks of saints. So what’s the reason of this theologically suspicious elevation of this particular saint?

Why Saints Nicholas and George don’t like each other?

Slavic god Veles (a modern depiction), Sukharev

The answer is simple. As in many parts of the world, Christianity in Russian lands was superimposed over the earlier pagan beliefs, which already included a figure known for giving out goods, namely Veles. Yet, unlike St. Nicholas, Veles occupied one of the central positions among old Slavic deities and distributed goods only in addition to his main role as the ruler of the underworld, god of magic and fertility. He was also the main rival of god Perun, associated with the sky and thunder. The folk version of Nicholas took over all these functions of Veles, rising far above the original Christian role of this Saint. Consequently, he became the antagonist of figures that took over the “heavenly business” of Perun, that is God, Jesus, St. George, Archangel Michael, and Elijah.

Yet, this doesn’t tell the whole story. The Eastern Slavonic juxtaposition of Perun (fire and sky) and Veles (earth and water) is a local variant of the much older and wider Indo-European myth about the conflict between a heavenly thunder-wielding entity and a serpentine creature associated with earth and water. In this context, St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, turns out to be the equivalent of a dragon sitting on a pile of gold (which would explain his antagonism with St. George).

We’ve gone a long way from the kind-hearted red-nosed bearded guy with reindeers. And now let’s imagine some of innumerable advertisements featuring Santa Claus with a dragon in his place. Don't you think that the traditional “Ho-ho-ho” will sound a little different?


Original text:, adapted from an article from Dr Maciej Czeremski’s blog ”Marka i mit”

“Creepy Santa” in the main image: Richard Elzey/Flickr, CC BY 

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