The Santa Network

I believe in Santa Claus. For sure. Not a doubt in my sugar-plummed head. But not as a person, or even merely a meme. I believe in Santa the network.

Okay, Yeah, There Was This Guy, Really Nice Guy

True, Santa did originate as a human being in the form of Saint Nicholas, a monk who was reportedly a serious do-gooder type back in the 3rd century AD in the part of the world that is now Turkey. Or maybe he was a bishop in the 4th century? Sources differ.

Whichever, he was known as being famously generous to the poor. Some say he had inherited money. One common story is that he provided dowries to three daughters of a fellow Christian so that they would not to sold into prostitution.

The Holy Bones of Old Saint Nick

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (Egypt) / K. Weitzmann: “Die Ikone”

So Nicholas was of local fame and might have stayed that way if the area hadn’t been subjugated by a Muslim dynasty hundreds in 1087. I don’t entirely understand their motivations, but a group of Italian merchants ended up taking large portions of Nicholas’s skeleton out of his sarcophagus in the Greek Orthodox church in Myra.

This action may have been the real start of today’s network. Nicholas’s bones were relocated to at least two other holy venues, and his fame seemed to spread as his bones were disseminated. Among the places we know about, the bones went to Bari (now in the Basilica di San Nicola) and to Venice (where a church to St. Nicholas was built).

With different sacred sites holding his relics and spreading his fame, Saint Nicholas somehow became a patron saint of various groups: archers, sailors, children and even pawnbrokers. His feast day on December 6th became a day of gift giving for children. Hundreds of years after his death, the man became a happy tradition, a time when people could be at their best.

The Wild Hunt, a Flying Reindeer’s Nightmare

Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1845-1921) – Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden. Otto Spamer, Leipzig & Berlin. 

But Saint Nicholas is not the only personage on whom Santa Claus is based. Eventually the feasting day of December 6th was moved to December 25th, which is of course associated with Christ’s birth.

And then there’s the less known role of the pagan god Odin. Before Christianity came to Northern and Germanic Europe there was the tradition of Yuletide. During this period, weird and supernatural things were likely to happen. This included the Wild Hunt, which was when Odin led a procession through the skies atop his eight legged horse Sleipnir.

In her book Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore: A Guide to Seasonal Rites Throughout the WorldMargaret Baker writes that “the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage.”

Nast Invents Our North Pole Nick

By the time the 1800s rolled around, it was a full blown network event. That is, Santa was a crazy quilt made up of various ideas, traditions, stories, myths, religious ceremonies, and artwork. This quilt incorporated huge numbers of people, who became more closely networked through the means of gift-giving, goodwill wishing, story exchanging, and more.

Then came the illustrations of Thomas Nast. As reports,

In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves and his wife, Mrs. Claus

Jolting Volts Into the Santa Network

If Nast and Harpers jump-started our modern Santa, then our new-fangled electrical networks send him into overdrive. Radio, cinema, television, digital: all helped ensure the global expansion of today’s Santa network.

But the network isn’t just made up of gaudy megabytes of mythology. Ultimately, it resides in our immense collective imagination and complex interactions.

The people who are part of this tradition (and I know it’s not everyone, though I imagine most people have at least heard of Santa Claus) are nodes in the network, zipping along our gift, gifs, and well wishes to another across continents and oceans. The folks in all those FedEx, UPS and USPS trucks? They are the connections incarnate among the all the nodes (and, of course, typically nodes themselves in their personal lives).

In short, we are Santa. Our network may have been sparked by a single, sainted individual living close to two millennia ago, but it is we who are–for at least for a short time each year–enacting the Santa myth, embodying its ideal. This Santa is indisputably real. At least as real as our networked minds and our networked societies and nations.

So, happy holidays to you and yours! And to all the gorgeous, living reticula collectively known as Santa.


Featured image by cartoonist Thomas Nast