Santa Claus Worldwide: A History of St. Nicholas and Other Holiday Gift-bringers

(4 customer reviews)


Santa Claus Worldwide: A History of St. Nicholas and Other Holiday Gift-Bringers is a comprehensive history of the world’s midwinter gift-givers, showcasing the extreme diversity in their depictions as well as the many traits and functions these characters share.


Santa Claus Worldwide: A History of St. Nicholas and Other Holiday Gift-Bringers is a comprehensive history of the world’s midwinter gift-givers, showcasing the extreme diversity in their depictions as well as the many traits and functions these characters share.  It tracks the evolution of these figures from the tribal priests who presided over winter solstice celebrations thousands of years before the birth of Christ, to Christian notables like St. Martin and St. Nicholas, to a variety of secular figures who emerged throughout Europe following the Protestant Reformation. Finally, it explains how an untitled poem by a wealthy New Yorker in 1822 gradually created an enduring tradition in which American children awake early on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought.

Although the names, appearance, attire and gift-giving practices of the world’s winter solstice gift-givers differ greatly, they are all recognizable as Santa, the personification of the Christmas and Winter Solstice festivals worldwide. Despite efforts to eliminate him by groups as diverse as the Puritans of seventeenth century New England, the Communist Party of the twentieth century Soviet Union and the government of Nazi Germany, Santa has survived and prospered, becoming one of the best known and most beloved figures in the world.  The history of how Santa developed, however, has often been ignored, inaccurately conflated with the legend of St. Nicholas, fabricated under the guise of children’s stories or historical fiction, and, in one particularly significant case, subject to a significant error by one of the nation’s leading experts on St. Nicholas that has gone unnoticed for seventy years.

The product of years of exhaustive historical research, Santa Claus Worldwide is the first legitimate history of Santa Claus in more than a decade, and the first history in more than a hundred years to provide a comprehensive look at the Yuletide gift-givers throughout the world.

  • This book corrects the conventional wisdom that the “original Santa Claus” was a real person, the fourth-century bishop known as St. Nicholas of Myra, debunking the oft-repeated claim that “Santa Claus” is merely the American name for St. Nicholas.  While St. Nicholas had an important role in the development of Santa, he was neither the first version of Santa Claus nor the immediate predecessor of the American version.
  • It was Roman gods like Saturn who presided over Winter Solstice ceremonies, which were converted into the earliest “Christmas” festivals after the Romans converted to Christianity during the fourth century, the Germanic gods Odin, Thor and Berchta who originally performed the role of Santa Claus, flying through the air on an assortment of animals or vehicles, landing on roofs and entering homes through the chimney, and leaving gifts for good children and punishments for bad ones.
  • After northern Europe was Christianized during the Middle Ages, Catholic missionaries designated St. Nicholas as Yule gift-giver in lieu of the Germanic pagan gods.  St. Nicholas was selected, however, only because his feast day, December 6, happened to coincide with the Germanic Yule festivities.
  • This book also corrects a significant inaccuracy perpetrated in 1953 by an eminent Berkeley historian, Charles W. Jones, and adopted without question in more than two dozen historians since then, that American author Washington Irving created, in effect, the American Santa Claus.  Jones’ theory—that Irving’s History of New York, first published in 1809, caused the legend of St. Nicholas to “spread like a plague” in New York during 1810—was based on the assumption that materials about St. Nicholas were included in the 1809 edition of Irving’s book.  By comparing the 1809 and 1812 editions of Irving’s book, however, it is evidence that the critical materials were not included until the 1812 edition of Irving’s book, a previously unnoticed fact that completely undermines Jones’ theory (and the numerous histories that have relied on it).
  • In fact, the original American Santa was the shabby, unkempt, secular gift-givers known by two dozen different names in Germany who immigrated to America with German children during the early nineteenth century.  One of them, Pelznickel (“Nicholas in furs”), became known as Belsnickle in Pennsylvania while another, Christkindl (“Christ child”), became known as Kriss Kringle.
  • Likewise, the name “Santa Claus” was not merely the American pronunciation of St. Nicholas.  The name “Santa Claus,” and a number of close variants, were being used in Germany to describe the Yule gift-giver, and by 1813 a name pronounced as “Santiclaws” was already being used by children in New York–presumably, German immigrants–to describe essentially the same Yule gift-giver known as Belsnickel and Kriss Kringle in Pennsylvania.

The name “Santeclaus,” the bearded German gift-giver who descended down the chimney and left gifts in stockings hung out on Christmas, and a new element–a sleigh pulled by a flying reindeer–were united in 1821 by publisher William B. Gilley in a children’s book called The Children’s Friend: Part III A New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve.  In 1822, Clement C. Moore, a neighbor and customer of Gilley, wrote a poem for his children based on Gilley’s book.  Although the book disappeared from public knowledge until it was rediscovered roughly a hundred and twenty years later, the story lived on in Moore’s poem, “The Night Before Christmas.”

4 reviews for Santa Claus Worldwide: A History of St. Nicholas and Other Holiday Gift-bringers

  1. melvilliana (verified owner)

    Santa Claus Worldwide distills the cheerful essence of Christmas from many sources and studies, old and new. In addition to his wide reading, author Tom A. Jerman has brought a wealth of personal experience and knowledge as a collector to the task of synthesizing the history and often bewildering variety of holiday gift-bringers. Jerman helpfully surveys ancient traditions (Roman Saturnalia) and models (Wotan/Odin, for example), as well as Christian figures like the Christkindl and myriad incarnations of jolly old St. Nick. Several chapters also offer new takes on familiar themes of previous Santa-studies. Of special interest to me in that regard are separate chapters on Washington Irving and the illustrated verses on “Old Santeclaus” as uniquely published in the 1821 Children’s Friend. Without denying evident traces of Irving’s comic History of New York on Clement C. Moore’s iconic poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” Jerman challenges the influential conspiracy theory that a few wealthy New Yorkers “invented” the American Santa Claus. With a collector’s understanding of folklore and a lawyer’s flair for arguing, Jerman makes a persuasive case for the historical-cultural evolution of Santa Claus, outside of and independent from any particular construction of Manhattan elites. This view expressly builds on previous work by Phyllis Siefker in Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men (1997; 2006) and Gerry Bowler in Christmas in the Crosshairs (2016). Chapter 19 pays extra and well-deserved attention to William B. Gilley and illustrator Arthur J. Stansbury as co-creators of “Old Santeclaus.” I’m already finding this book valuable to have as a basic reference work when doing my own archival research. For instance, lately I discovered an 1841 newspaper reprinting of “A Visit from St Nicholas” with the alternative title, “Old Belsnickle.” Say what? Well, as helpfully explained in several chapters (especially 3, 8, and 16), this Belsnickle or furry Nicholas has to be the Americanized Pelznickle, one of many protestant German gift-givers. Kriss Kringle similarly derives from the German Christkindl. Santa Claus Worldwide fairly revels in the rich diversity of figures that symbolize and stimulate winter gift-giving. And it’s loaded with wonderful pictures, too. I’m sure this exceptionally useful and readable volume of holiday history will make a great gift for 21st century Santas and Santa lovers everywhere

  2. Chris Shumway (verified owner)

    Santa Claus Worldwide describes gift givers throughout the world in history from the pagan god Odin to the present day Father Christmas, Weihnachten, Père Noël, Ded Moroz, and Santa Claus. Mr. Jerman’s thorough research of this subject, takes the reader on a journey from Winter Solstice celebrations that evolved into the Christmas season that is beloved around the globe. After reading this fine book, one will never look at a “right, jolly old elf” the same way but enlightened at how he has endured over time.

  3. Scott Norsworthy (verified owner)

    Until now I’ve been especially interested in Clement C. Moore and his transcendent poem The Night Before Christmas. Tom Jerman puts Moore’s classic in perspective with a broad and highly informative look at the international history of Santa Claus. For my own understanding of Moore’s poem, the chapters on Washington Irving and “Old Santeclaus” as uniquely presented in the Children’s Friend have been most helpful. And provocative, too, since Jerman does not merely paraphrase the work of others. Beyond that, this book is teaching me a lot about European and pre- Christian traditions and influences. Not to mention the best treatments ever of Bad Santas and Oddball Santas and all kinds of evil helpers. Overall I found SANTA CLAUS WORLDWIDE to be entertaining, persuasive, and in places hilarious! So refreshing to find solid evidence and arguments presented in non-academic language. All that and loaded with uncommonly good pictures, way more than usual. What’s not to love?

  4. Rob McEntarffer (verified owner)

    I’m not a historian (I work with a lot of historians, but I’m not one!) but this book REALLY impressive piece of work! Extensively referenced and Tom Jerman does a great, scholarly job of telling the “stories” that should be told with the support of a lot of references! Well done!

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