In the days before the Americans turned him into a cuddly economic stimulus package, Santa led a much more exciting life. Today he lets even the naughtiest children sit on his lap and demand Nintendos, ipods and mobile phones. He listens politely and promises to do what he can. But even he can’t escape the global financial crisis. Last month some of his toy making elves rioted when he was forced to announce layoffs.
But Santa wasn’t always so meek and managerial. In his prime he was known as Nicholas the Bishop of Myra. According to tradition, he once raised three boys from the dead after finding their bodies pickled in brine. A wicked innkeeper had murdered them Snowtown-style, cutting up their bodies and stuffing the pieces into a large barrel (presumably so they could be eaten later).
Admittedly, the details of St Nicholas’ life are a little hazy. Some people say that the story about the murdered boys in the barrel is a confused version of a story about three girls he saved from prostitution. Apparently the girls’ father suffered some kind of liquidity problem and was planning to exchange his daughters for cash. But by secretly tossing three bags of gold through the family’s window, St Nicholas made sure that the girls had dowries. According to the confusion-theory, some imaginative soul was looking at a picture of the story and mistook the three bags of gold for three severed heads (an understandable mistake in an age when most villages lacked a bulk-billing optometrist).
As a result of these (or perhaps other) miraculous deeds, the bishop became the patron saint of children, barrel makers and pawnbrokers (the connection with pawnbrokers probably has something to do with the three bags of gold/heads). And as a saint, Nicholas was given his own feast day — the sixth of December.
After his death Nicholas moved to Europe. On the eve of his feast day he’d pop round with a helper to deliver treats for good children. According to some European traditions this helper was a hairy, black, goat-horned creature who punished bad children by beating them with a bundle of birch twigs.
In Austria, St Nicholas’ birch wielding companion was known as the Krampus. The Krampus looked a little like a medieval Gene Simmons or something nasty out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Along with the horns and tail, he had a long pink tongue and carried a sack or a barrel on his back. If a child had been particularly bad, the Krampus would toss them over his shoulder and carry them off (possibly to a river where he would drown them).
St Nicholas doesn’t seem to have been bothered by the beatings, abductions and drownings. In fact in some old pictures, he carries his own bundle of birch twigs (but perhaps he was just dropping them off in case the parents needed to use them later).
Stories about St Nicholas and his helper crossed into America along with European immigrants. In some parts of the country children were visited by the Belsnickel who handed out both gifts and beatings. It seems that in some traditions, St Nicholas and his helper merged into a single character.
The old St Nicholas is still active in the Netherlands where his helper is the dark-skinned Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete"). According to Amar Latour-De Bijmer, the tradition of depicting Black Pete as a Moor began in the 19th century:
His creation neatly solved a moral dilemma for St. Nicholas, who is supposed to reward good children and punish the bad. Why not let Zwarte Piet, like the Devil, do the dirty work of doling out the chastisement? To this day, Zwarte Piet not only carries the gifts — but threatens to take bad children away in the emptied bag.
The Dutch St Nicholas (aka Sinterklaas) is often accompanied by a number of these black-faced helpers — sometimes as many as eight. Not surprisingly, this has led to friction with the country’s African community. Some people claim that Black Pete isn’t actually black at all. They say that he’s just sooty from climbing up and down so many chimneys. But others, like Dutch theatre director Felix de Rooy, argue that the Black Pete tradition is tainted by the legacy of slavery.
When American writer David Sedaris travelled to Holland, he discovered some other surprising facts about the Dutch St Nicholas and his helpers. Not only does St Nicholas live in Spain and travel by steamship, but sometimes he beats the bad children himself (or pretends to):
While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively simple. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you’re bad, he leaves you coal. If you’re good and live in America, he’ll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared."
It’s hard not to wonder whether our sanitised shopping mall Santa misses the good old days when he solved crimes, rescued women from sexual slavery, and looked on while his hairy companion tossed naughty children into a sack.