A couple of years ago, when I started work on the Myths and Legends series, I spent a lot of time thinking about the ‘big names’ in the field. Mostly, I thought about ancient gods and heroes such as Hercules, Thor, and King Arthur. Then, one day, it occurred to me that arguably the most popular, well-known, and beloved legendary figure in the modern world was neither a god nor a hero, but instead a fat, jolly elf. Everyone knows Santa Claus, and even for those who don’t necessarily ‘believe’ in him, he is generally accepted as a fun and festive figure. I began to wonder if I could do a Myths and Legends book on Santa...
I knew almost nothing about Santa Claus beyond what various Christmas television specials had shown me as a child. I vaguely knew that his original name had been Saint Nicholas, and that he’d been a bishop a long time ago...possibly in Turkey. So I started digging.
What I discovered was a rich, multi-layered tradition of stories both in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. From a popular bishop in a relatively unimportant part of the Roman Empire, Saint Nicholas grew into one of the most popular Saints in the middle-ages. Numerous and diverse groups such as children, sailors, maidens, money lenders, pawn brokers, and prisoners called upon him as their patron saint. Expeditions were organized to steal (ahem, ‘protect’) his bones. He appeared in numerous folktales, some of which read more like Grimm’s fairytales than Saint’s Lives.
From there, through the chaos of the Reformation, and onto America the story of Saint Nicholas slowly turns into the story of Santa Claus. It’s not a direct road by any means and some pieces of the story have been lost, but it is an amazing tale none-the-less.
What started off as a casual interest, became an area of study. It became clear that while Santa Claus didn’t really fit well into the Myths and Legend series, he certainly deserved a book of his own, one that presented the best of those great stories, and explained how he came to be such an important figure in the modern world.
So, in the end, I wrote one.
And of course, Peter Dennis provided the images. Check out Peter's impression of Santa in traditional green garb