Santa Claus as we know him today has only existed since the 19th century, and he slid down the chimney in a 1812 book by Washington Irving. But the fireplace served as a venue for magical visitors long before Santa Claus. During the 15th century, the French scholar Petrus Mamoris became concerned about a widespread belief that witches could p th solid objects like walls and closed doors in order to enter s. Believing Christians were granting too much power to the occult, Mamoris offered a practical explanation: witches, elves, and the like simply entered via the chimney. This idea gained widespread cultural currency. In Renaissance-era fairy tales, fairies appeared via chimneys, and during the same period, witches were said to fly up their chimneys on broomsticks to attend Sabbat meetings.
Thout European folklore, the heh and chimney act as a liminal space connecting the and super worlds. According to legend, many super creatures exploit this special intermediary space to enter s—for good or ill. Scottish and English legend feature the brownie, a househ spirit that aids in domestic tasks, but only at night, and enters and exits via the chimney. In Snia, a shape-shifting fairy called the Skrat brings riches to human families who cultivate his favor, flying down the chimney in a fiery form when delivering . According to Celtic lore, a ry bogie called the bodach sneaks down chimneys and s children. Some chimney-traveling spirits appear specifically during the winter holidays. In Greece, goblins known as Kallikantzaroi slip down the chimney to wreak havoc during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Italy’s La Befana, sometimes called the Christmas witch, delivers gifts the night before Epiphany, leaving her presents in shoes set by the fireplace.
While La Befana wasn’t making widespread deliveries in the early United States, other mythical holiday gift-bringers were. Pelznichol—also called Pelznikel, Belsnickel, or Bellschniggle—traveled among German immigrant communities in 19th-century Pennsylia, sing naughty children and rewarding good ones. This whip-wielding man was a t more intimidating than jolly Santa Claus, but he served a similar purpose.
According to a December 19, 1827 issue of the Philadelphia Gazette, “He is the precursor of the jolly elfe ‘Christkindle’ or ‘St. Nicholas,’ and makes his peral appearance, dressed in skins or clothes, his face , a bell, a whip, and a pocket full of cakes or nuts … It is no sooner dark than the Bellschniggle’s bell is heard flitting from house to house … He slips down the chimney, at the fairy hour of midnight, and deposits his presents quietly in the prepared stocking.” Pelznichol comes from the German word pelz, meaning hide or fur coat, and Nichol, meaning Nicholas. Literally “Furry Nicholas,” Pelznichol was a forerunner to the American Santa Claus—and a mythical companion of the same ancient saint.
While the character of Santa Claus draws from numerous mythical sources, his namesake is St. Nicholas, the 4th-century Bishop of Myra, an ancient town in what is now Turkey. In the most famous tale involving St. Nicholas, the shop anonymously delivers bags of g to a poor to use as dowries for their s, keeping the her from selling the girls into prostitution. Early versions of the have the saint tossing the th the window—appropriate, given that St. Nicholas lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries, 900 years before the chimney. But as the changed over time, St. Nicholas began dropping the g down the chimney. A 14th-century fresco in a Seran church shows the chimney had become p of the legend by the early Renaissance period.
Thanks to his generous dowry gifts and a host of miracles—including resurrecting a of murdered boys who had been chopped into pieces—St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children, and his feast day was ociated with special treats for the little ones. By the 16th century, it was tradition for Dutch children to leave their shoes on the heh the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas. They would then wake to find the shoes filled with candy and presents, which they believed the saint had lowered down the chimney. Though Catholic saints were renounced during the Reformation, St. Nicholas stayed popular in the Low Countries, even among some Dutch Protestants, and Dutch settlers bt their traditions to North America.
The name Santa Claus is an Americanized version of the abbreviated Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, but Dutch costs did not popularize him, as most of these were saint-averse Reformation Dutch, and their influence waned once New Amsterdam became New York. In 1809, it was writer Washington Irving who helped spark an interest in St. Nicholas when he featured the saint in his satirical Knickerbocker’s Hi of New York, which made fun of antiquarians obsessed with the city’s Dutch hege. In an expanded version of Knickerbocker’s published in 1812, Irving added a reference—the known—to St. Nicholas “rattl[ing] down the chimney” himself, rather than simply dropping the presents down.
It was the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”—that popularized the idea of Santa Claus tumbling down the chimney. Initially published anonymously, the poem appeared in print in 1823 and it wasn’t until 1844 that Clement Clark Moore, a professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at a ble , claimed the , though his authorship is still disputed by some. The poem features Santa Claus descending down the chimney “with a bound,” then rising up the chimney after delivering his gifts. The poem began to be published annually in spapers and magazines, and the illustrator and political coonist Thomas Nast cemented its vision of Santa Claus with his drawings of a plump, cheerful, bearded man delivering gifts in a sleigh.
Millions of American children came to believe that Santa Claus slid down the chimney to deliver their presents. But what does Santa do if there’s no chimney? As coal and wood stoves took the place of open fireplaces in many American s, a parallel tradition developed: Santa squeezed down the stove pipe. By 1857, this image was common enough that The New York Times referred to it as a given.
It might seem ridiculous to imagine the portly gift-bringer somehow stuffing himself into a six-inch stove pipe, but during the mid-19th century, Santa Claus was envisioned differently in one key way: he was miniature. In his poem, Moore calls Santa “a jolly elf,” suggesting his size is elfin: he is a “little driver” in a “miniature sleigh” with “eight reindeer.” He has a “droll little mouth,” and it’s his “little round belly” that “shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.”
Illustrations from the time, including many of Nast’s drawings, show a miniature Santa who needs to stand on a chair to reach the on the mantelpiece. But while this elfin Santa could slide easily down the chimney, even he would have difficulty squeezing th a stove pipe. In published letters to Santa, some children inquired about his method of entry: “Do you crawl down stove pipes?” Of course, Santa Claus is magical, so while children may have been curious about the practicalities involved, it wasn’t a barrier to belief. One boy t Santa confidently in 1903, “I for you every night in the stove.”
Adults were not as sanguine. In 1893, Harper’s Weekly published a worried opinion piece about the decline of Santa Claus. The stove pipe made it er to believe in Santa, the author observed, but the rise of steam radiators and -air heating made it essentially impossible:
“We know of no contemporary perage who is suffering more from allowing himself to drop behind the times than our Santa Claus. […] The downward course of Santa Claus began with the introduction of the cast-iron stove. As long as the -fashioned fireplace lasted he was secure. As the children gathered around this fraud, toasting their toes while their backs gradually but surely congealed, the of Santa Claus and his chimney-descending hats seemed entirely probable. There was scely a single stumbling-block for faith. […] But after the arrival of the comfortable albeit un stove, when the child was t of Santa Claus, he simply looked at the pipe and put his tongue in his cheek. Still, he tried to believe in him, and succeeded after a fashion. Then even the stove disappeared in many househs, to be succeeded by the steam-radiator or a -air hole in the floor. The notion of Santa Claus coming down a steam-pipe or up th a register was even more absurd than the idea of his braving the dimensions of a stove-pipe. […] Now it occurs to us that all this might have been avoided if people had had the wisdom to keep Santa Claus up with the times. […] When the air- stove was introduced, a mode of ingress other than the chimney should have been provided.”
This author needn’t have worried; Americans were not about to let Santa Claus disappear from cultural mry. Indeed, as the 20th century dawned, he became only more popular, as inesses enlisted him for copious advertising campaigns, like the famous 1930s Coca-Cola ads gned by Haddon Sundblom.
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