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Wednesday, December 24, 1997 Published at 10:26 GMT

Special Report

Santa's secret history

As children in all parts of the world anxiously await the arrival of this burly midnight visitor, little do they know or care that he is a man with a shady past.

Part saint, part pagan god, part advertising executive's creation, the sherry drinking, mince pie munching icon has been reinvented on more than occasion.

The real thing?

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The Coca-Cola company say they invented the modern Santa Claus.

The company's claim is based on the work of the Chicago ad-man Haddon Sundblom who painted Santa Claus for the Coca-Cola Christmas campaigns from 1931 to 1964. In the adverts he appears brandishing the soft drink in the company colours of red and white.

While Coca-Cola may be partly responsible for repackaging the Santa image, the real Santa Claus, or as we know him in Britain, Father Christmas, has much earlier roots.

Others argue that the modern image of Santa comes from the work of Thomas Nast, an artist who drew for the magazine Harpers Weekly. He painted Santa from 1863 to 1886 and in 1869 illustrated a book called Santa Claus and His Works. The book showed how Santa manufactured toys for boys and girls at his home at the North Pole.

At this time Santa often wore a brown furry coat, but this practicality was finally dispensed with in about 1885, when he first appeared on Christmas cards in his customary cheery red suit.

Santa first became airborne in the early 1820s and he was joined by the full crew of reindeer in 1822, in the poem A Visit from St Nicholas, by Clement Clarke Moore. Red-nosed Rudolph did not join the reindeer team until 1939.

Moore's poem which begins with the line "'Twas the night before Xmas," introduces many of the familiar characteristics that make up the modern Santa. Mentioned for the first time are not only the sleigh and the sack of toys but also the chimney, the red nose and the big belly.

Identity crisis

The real St. Nicholas, the name from which Santa Claus is derived, was a bishop in third or fourth century Lycia, now part of modern Turkey. He was venerated for saving the lives of three soldiers and later for his acts of generosity to poor young women in need of dowries. His remains were re-interred in Italy some 600 years after his death and the site became a place of pilgrimage.

The tradition of St. Nicholas, or Sinter Klaus, was exported to America by the Dutch in the 17th century, when they first emigrated to New Amsterdam, later renamed New York.

In Holland, children continue to celebrate the Saint's day on December 6, by leaving their clogs out to be filled with gifts. St. Nicholas is said to arrive in Holland by boat from Spain, a more prosaic method of transport than the sleigh. But he only leaves gifts for good children and the naughty ones get left birch twigs by an ugly black dwarf.

The British Father Christmas first appears as a minor pagan figure in the middle ages. Portrayed as a merry old man he was associated with feasting and drinking and the pagan festival of Yule. Disapproving of this pagan revelry in 1644, England's puritans banned the celebration of Christmas calling it,"The Old Heathen's Feasting Day".

The Finnish Santa was also a pagan figure, named Joulupukki and known for wearing goatskins and horns. But instead of giving presents, he demanded them in return for not causing trouble!

In the 1850's, possibly via reprints of the American book, The Christmas Stocking, Santa Claus crossed the Atlantic to Britain and began to merge with the pagan Father Christmas. By the turn of the century he had become a central figure in British Christmas celebrations.

Where to find Santa

Nowadays Santa is fully taking advantage of modern technology and children can send their Christmas lists to one of his many websites.

But there is still some confusion about the location of his official residence, with at least three countries claiming to to be home to the real Santa. The Swedish Travel and Tourism Council says that he lives Santa World, Mount Gesunda north of Stockholm. While the Danish Tourist board claims he lives in Greenland.

The Finnish Tourist Board has reason to feel smug, however, because more people visit their country seeking Santa than any other. There are three grottoes in Finnish Lapland and they were visited by roughly 15,000 people in 1996.

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The Real Father Christmas - Coca-cola site

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