Finding Santa: Canada’s Drive to Claim Jolly Old Saint Nic
In 2022, CBC Kids ran a fun little story that outlined four reasons why Santa Claus is, in fact, Canadian. Slightly tongue-in-cheek when viewed by older readers, the piece was nonetheless interesting, pointing out eccentric facts, such as the issuing of Mr. and Mrs. Claus with an ePassport, the country’s proximity to – and claiming of – the North Pole, and the fact that Canada is the only country on Earth that boasts a “H0H 0H0” postcode.
The piece was just for fun, of course. Yet, if we dissect it, we can see similarities in how countries have put different claims on historical figures, ranging from Alexander the Great, Siddartha, and Cleopatra to more modern figures like Mother Theresa, Albert Einstein, and Freddie Mercury. Sure, these are real figures, whereas Santa Claus is fictional (sorry, kids), albeit the modern concept is certainly influenced by some real historical figures from Europe and Eastern Asia.
Of course, we know the modern depiction of Santa Claus is largely North American in design. And for that, we have to look to Canada’s southern neighbor, which largely gave rise to the modern interpretations, red coat and all. Many point to Coca-Cola’s role in creating the modern image of Santa, which we see today in movies like The Santa Clause and Christmas-themed games like Santa’s Village. But Coca-Cola’s famous ad campaign began in the 1930s, and the ideas of the modern Santa predate the campaigns by a few decades.
Jolly Bearded Santa Predates Coca-Cola Campaign
For example, L. Frank Baum (the writer of Wizard of Oz fame) published The Life of and Adventures of Santa Claus in 1902, which had already firmly established the idea of a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Baum and others will have been influenced by 19th-century caricaturists and the 1823 poem “A Visit from St Nicholas”, which is attributed to Clement Clarke Moore and better known as “The Night Before Christmas”. In short, Coca-Cola popularized an idea that was already conceived.
What’s interesting from an anthropological standpoint, however, is that, as with historical figures like Alexander, we tend to try to mark Santa Claus with our own national traits. This, in turn, can be adopted by other countries. Leaving milk and cookies out on Christmas Eve is well-established in Canada and the USA, for instance, whereas in Ireland and the UK, it was once traditional to leave some beer. But this practice is not as widespread as the traditions become more Americanized. Even in central Europe, where places like Hungary and Slovenia tend to have the Santa figure arrive in early December, the Anglo-American tradition of bringing gifts on the night of December 24th is becoming more prevalent.
Every Nation Has Their Own Version
There are, of course, pushbacks against the role of Santa Claus in culture. These can range from the anti-religious campaigns of early Soviet Russia to the anti-commercialism of today. But, by and large, most Western countries have shaped a version of Santa Claus, which has been later reinforced by the commercial North American version. Even in Eastern Europe and Russia, the latter of whom claims the North Pole as Canada does, there are elements of the “American Santa Claus” in the depictions of Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost).
Does any of this matter? Not particularly. However, there is an all-too-human quality of believing that “our” version is the correct version, even when dealing with a fictitious and evolving character. If we take, for example, the letter-writing correspondence between children and Santa, on which, we might add, Canada Post does an admirable job of facilitating, it is possible that letter-writing itself dies out in the coming years due to being replaced by electronic correspondence.
Other practices, such as burning the letter in a fire so it goes ‘up’ the chimney, have died out, as most of us have central heating units. The point, though, is that the modern Canadian Santa Claus is very different from the one we knew 50 or 100 years ago, and he will be very different 50 years from now. Santa will remain Canadian because he has the passport and citizenship to prove it. But he will evolve by borrowing other elements from other countries and cultures, as well as the changes that modernity places upon every being, real or otherwise, over time.