Is “Santa” a first name or what?

Santa. Or is it “Santa Claus” and what about St. Nick? Or Father Christmas? Kris Kringle?? Are these all the same people? Is “Santa” his first name, or what?

Growing up in California, I was always a bit confused about the name “Santa”. We have so many towns called “Santa” something. When I learned a bit of Spanish I realized that it was the Spanish word for “saint”. So how does that figure into the Christmas character?

Saint Nicholas was a Byzantine bishop in the 300s AD. There are legends of his generosity and gift giving, and his name day is celebrated on the 6th of December. Gifts were exchanged in his honor on that day. When the reformation came along in the 1500s and 1600s, saint days were looked down upon, and gift giving was moved to coincide with Christmas to emphasize Jesus. So that’s how we got the date. But what about the name?

In Dutch, Saint Nicholas is known as “Sinterklass”. This came from Middle Dutch “Sinter Niklass”. This was Americanized in the late 1700s as “Santa Claus”. So we lost the “ni” from “Nicholas” and borrowed a word for “saint”. So “santa” is a title, historically. And “Claus” is a shortened for of the first name “Nicholas” A far cry from the “Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus” conception of modern popular culture.

How do Father Christmas and Kris Kringle figure into Santa? Father Christmas was the English (British) personification of the season of Christmas. His history can be concretely dated to the 15th century, but he probably has origins much earlier in pagan midwinter festivals. As the personification of feasting and good cheer, Father Christmas contributed the “jolly” to “jolly old St. Nick”.

Kris Kringle is synonymous with Santa today. But the name is actually derived from the German “Christkindl” tradition. This was Martin Luther’s attempt in the 1500s to bring winter gift-giving away from St. Nicholas day and onto Christmas by having the “Christkindl”, the “Christ child” (i.e. Baby Jesus), bring gifts for children. But St. Nick never really left the popular conception of gift-giving, and along the way Santa picked up the “Kris Kringle” name as well.

Folklore is never as simple as you think it’s going to be. Certain things catch the zeitgeist of their era and are so popular we have remnants of them centuries later. We can see echoes of these traditions by examining the words we use to talk about them. There’s usually a little interesting historical tidbit stuck inside our folklore names.

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