20 December 2018

Why Sinterklaas isn’t fat at all, and Santa Claus certainly is

Santa is tired

During the special Christmas edition of the Descartes Centre Christmas Colloquium last Wednesday, science historian Dr Hieke Huistra talked about the history of December celebrations with Sinterklaas and Father Christmas in the leading role. 

Motley array of gift-bringers

December is all about gifts. People have been giving each other gifts in the last month of the year for many centuries – since long before we became acquainted with Santa Claus, a.k.a. Father Christmas, before Sinterklaas existed, before Nicholas of Myra lived and before we celebrated the birth of Jesus.

The gifts are a constant in our December celebrations, but what has continued to change is who brings these gifts. Through the centuries, we in Europe have had a motley array of gift-bringers (ranging from a tree stump to a saint), each of which took a form that suited the time and place in which they ‘lived’. This form could easily change, as they were all fictive figures.

Nowadays, we are most familiar with Sinterklaas, a traditional figure in the Netherlands, and Father Christmas. These are close relatives: Father Christmas is the American version of Sinterklaas, as clearly revealed by one of his other names, Santa Claus – a corruption of the Dutch Sint Nicolaas (Saint Nicholas), or Sinterklaas. Besides the name, there are other similarities, as both are old, white men who distribute sacks of gifts in December, especially to children. There are also differences, however. Sinterklaas is mounted on a horse, whereas Father Christmas rides in a sledge; Sinterklaas has a robe and staff, Father Christmas has a red and white coat and trousers with fur trimming; and Sinterklaas is tall and thin, while Father Christmas is short and fat.

The differences exist because the gift-bringers arose in different periods, and developed in different ways.

Gerard David: Three Legends of Saint Nicholas
Gerard David: Drie legendes van Sint-Nicolaas

Through the centuries

Sinterklaas is derived from the figure of St Nicholas. Around the 12th century, he came to be seen as the bringer of the December gifts, which had already been customary for centuries. This probably began in France, where French nuns distributed gifts to poor children in his name. From there, the figure of St Nicholas spread through Western and Central Europe. This St Nicholas was tall and thin, which perfectly suited his character as a strict Catholic saint who only presented gifts to children who had been well-behaved and dutifully said their prayers. A figure like this, in the mediaeval Christian context, could never be fat.

Being fat was no problem in the Middle Ages, and indeed long after, and could even be a status symbol; for a long time, it was an ideal of beauty, as we see in the women in the 17th-century paintings of Rubens. In the Christian church, however, being fat has always been something negative: it was a sign of sin, of gluttony, of the inability to control oneself. A saint, and especially a fictive saint, could certainly not have such qualities, which is why Christian saints are always portrayed as thin figures – and that went for St Nicholas, too.

Christus Kind. Fragment uit Heinrich Hoffmann's grappige verhalen en grappige foto's voor kinderen van 3 tot 6 jaar oud.
Christkind in Struwwelpeter, 1845

Successors to St Nicholas

In the 16th century, following the Reformation, St Nicholas disappeared from most European countries. The leaders of the new Protestant church believed that the Catholic veneration of saints should come to an end. Patron saint days were abolished, and the celebration of St Nicholas was likewise forbidden in many areas. Many countries adapted their December gift-bringer to the new circumstances, and St Nicholas was often replaced by Baby Jesus, usually with an assistant, as he himself, so went the idea, could not carry the sack of gifts – after all, he was still a baby. These assistants varied per region. Sometimes, they were malicious versions of St Nicholas, such as Pelznickel in the south of Germany. There were female figures too: Frau Holle in Germany, Aunt Arie (a witch with goose feet and iron teeth) in France.

Furthermore, all over Europe, you encountered the tree stump, which we now mostly know in the form of a Christmas dessert (usually under its French name, bûche de noël), but which used to bring gifts: sometimes without further ado, sometimes only after singing children had beaten on it with sticks. (To this day, historians have not been able to figure out why people thought that Baby Jesus needed an assistant, but that a tree stump could manage by itself.)

The rise of Santa Claus

In the Netherlands, people resisted the abolishing of St Nicholas, and the holiday remained. St Nicholas then travelled with Dutch people across the ocean to New York – which was then still New Amsterdam – and thus took up residence in the United States. Later on, other immigrants here (especially the English) also needed someone to bring their December gifts, and so an American version of St Nicholas arose in the 19th century: Santa Claus.

New appearance

In the process, the figure changed character: Santa Claus was not a strict Christian saint, but a friendly figure, with no religious association, who brought little gifts to everyone; children no longer needed to fear him. This new character also gained a new appearance: Santa remained an old man, but instead of being tall and thin, he became short and fat. This fitted the ideas that the 19th-century Americans had about fat and thin. At that time, it was fashionable to be fat.

Fat people were seen as healthy, prosperous and important, and often (but not always) as friendly - precisely the qualities that suited the new Father Christmas. By the end of the 19th century, we see that Santa Claus was consistently portrayed as a not overly tall man with a substantial belly.

Slimness ideal

Around 1900, the slimness ideal arose in America (in Europe, this had already happened some twenty years earlier), and it became important for all people, both men and women, to be thin. Slimness was a sign of one’s ability to deal with the superfluity of the modern age, and slim people were regarded as attractive and healthy. This view would remain throughout the 20th century, especially for women (and above all for white women from the middle and upper classes).

Will Santa Clause become thin again?

This means Santa’s appearance became standardised just in time. If this had happened a few decades later, he might have been thin instead of fat. Ultimately, we will probably head in this direction nevertheless. A few years ago, Australian doctors wrote a half-serious, half-satirical article in which they stated that a fat Father Christmas set a bad example for children. This might be a first sign that the belly of Father Christmas is slowly getting ready to shrink back to Sinterklaas format.

Tenby Santa Run, foto van lhourahane (flickr.com, cc 2.0)