A History of Santa Claus | The Economy of Gift-Giving

Santa Claus is a mascot that was created for Christmas and the gift-giving and receiving period of the annual economic cycle. It is part-myth, part-reality and part-legend. And yet, this mascot of mythical origin has a profound impact on the economic psyche of the world.

Santa Claus is also commonly known as Father Christmas and St Nicholas. He is said to come down a chimney and bring children gifts on Christmas Eve. His gifts are contingent upon whether or not children have been naughty or nice.

Santa is the one who delivers the gifts, but he is not the one who creates or makes them. The accolade for the hard work belongs to the Christmas elves who make the toys in his workshop. Santa and his army of elves are said to live the North Pole. His travelling companions are the flying reindeer who pull his sleigh through the snow-stricken sky.

The tradition of Santa Claus entering dwellings via the smoke-filled chimney is shared by many European seasonal gift-givers. In the pre-Christian Norse tradition, Odin would often enter through chimneys and fire holes on the solstice.

The names that Odin has are many. He is the old and ancient God of war and death. Half of the warriors who die in battle are taken to his hall of Valhalla. In the old stories, he is the one-eyed Father of All, who sacrificed his eye in order to see everything that happens in the world.

Odin is portrayed as a charming man who enjoys drinking alcohol. He was accused of behaviour that was not befitting of a man. He beat the drum and practised prophecy; something that had been traditionally associated with women.

Gift-Giving

Gift-giving, in some form or another, has always been a huge economic driver in every society. Huge industries have developed around the concept of gift-giving; be it for birthdays, bar mitzvahs or weddings. Billions are spent creating, marketing and distributing products that people buy, not for themselves, but for one another.

To Christians, the gifts given at Christmas are symbolic of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Magi after his prophesied birth. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of how the Magi journeyed to Bethlehem by following a star. Upon their arrival, they presented the infant Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The tradition of gift-giving, however, began long before the founding of Christianity. It has roots in the winter solstice. The festival of Saturnalia was when gratitude was extended to the bounty provided by the agricultural god Saturn.

The momentous annual occasion was celebrated with a sacrifice and a public banquet, which would be followed by gift-giving, partying, and a festive atmosphere where usual social hierarchies were temporarily suspended. During this feast, slaves would be considered the equal of their masters and free speech was not only permitted, but whole-heartedly embraced.

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