When children are told during Christmas that Santa Claus, a rather plump old man dressed in red who brings them gifts, enters houses through the chimney, most of them are surprised and ask the same question: How and why does he come down the chimney? Some don’t know what to say, while others have resorted to the strangest stories to give an answer. At HotFireDoor, we will tell you about the legend of Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas and the chimney.
The story of Santa Claus
Origin of Santa Claus in Turkey
The origin of Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, can be traced back to the historical figure of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Christian bishop who lived in the 4th century in Lycia, a region that is now part of present-day Turkey. Saint Nicholas was famous for his generosity and kindness towards the poor and children, and many stories and legends developed around him.
One of the most well-known stories about Saint Nicholas is that of a man who didn’t have money for his three daughters’ dowries. Saint Nicholas, upon learning about the situation, threw three bags of gold through the man’s window for three consecutive nights, allowing the daughters to get married. This story contributed to the tradition of giving gifts in his name.
Spread throughout Europe
Over time, the veneration of Saint Nicholas spread throughout Europe, and different cultures adopted and adapted its customs and legends. In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas is known as Sinterklaas, a phonetic adaptation of the name in Dutch, and is depicted as an elderly bishop who arrives on a ship from Spain, accompanied by his helpers called “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Petes).
Santa Claus in the United States
When Dutch settlers arrived in North America, the figure of Sinterklaas merged with British Christmas traditions and became “Santa Claus.”
The current image of Santa Claus as a chubby and cheerful man wearing a red and white suit became popular in the 19th century, largely due to the work of the American cartoonist Thomas Nast and, subsequently, the famous advertising campaign by Coca-Cola in the 1930s.
The origin of the legend of Santa Claus coming down the chimney
Everything points to this legend having its origins in a 19th-century poem. Its writer, Clement Clarke Moore, a scholar who had been researching Christmas myths around the world, wrote a story for his children that narrated the tale of Santa Claus, or Papa Noel, riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer and landing on the rooftop.
With a jump, he goes down the chimney and appears in the house, much to the surprise of those who are awake at that moment. It must also be one of the reasons why chimneys are decorated during Christmas.
In reality, everything indicates that the author combines various ancient stories, most of which originated from Finnish and Sami traditions. It’s worth noting that the traditional dwellings in that area were igloos or cabins with a similar shape, dug into the ground and with only the roof serving as an entrance. That is the key to understanding the legend of the chimney.
The poem where Santa Claus enters through the chimney
As mentioned, one of the most solid sources explaining why Santa Claus enters through the chimney is the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night Before Christmas” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823.
This poem is very popular in Anglo-Saxon Christmas tradition and has significantly influenced the modern conception of Santa Claus. It narrates the visit of Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) to a house on Christmas Eve, arriving in his sleigh pulled by reindeer and entering through the chimney to leave gifts. The complete poem is longer, but here I have shared a selection of the most representative verses in English.
“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads; And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap, Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below, When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick. More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky, So up to the house-top the coursers they flew, With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof The prancing and pawing of each little hoof. As I drew in my head, and was turning around, Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.”
Translation into Spanish of the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore
“Era la víspera de Navidad, y en toda la casa no se movía ni una criatura, ni siquiera un ratón; Las medias estaban colgadas junto a la chimenea con cuidado, con la esperanza de que San Nicolás pronto estaría allí;
Los niños estaban acurrucados cómodos en sus camas, mientras visiones de azucarillos danzaban en sus cabezas; Y mamá con su pañuelo y yo con mi gorro, nos habíamos acomodado para un largo sueño invernal,
Cuando en el césped se levantó tal alboroto, salí de la cama para ver qué pasaba. Rápido como un rayo volé hacia la ventana, abrí las contraventanas y levanté el marco.
La luna sobre el pecho de la nieve recién caída daba el resplandor del mediodía a los objetos de abajo, cuando, qué apareció ante mis ojos sorprendidos, sino un trineo pequeño y ocho renos diminutos,
Con un viejecito conductor, tan animado y rápido, supe en un instante que debía ser San Nicolás. Más rápidos que águilas sus corceles llegaron, y él silbó y gritó y los llamó por su nombre;
“¡Arre, Dasher! ¡Arre, Dancer! ¡Arre, Prancer y Vixen! ¡Vamos, Comet! ¡Vamos, Cupid! ¡Vamos, Donder y Blitzen! ¡A la cima del porche! ¡A la cima de la pared! ¡Ahora, arre! ¡Arre! ¡Arre todos!”
Como hojas secas que ante el huracán salvaje vuelan, cuando encuentran un obstáculo, se elevan al cielo, así hacia el tejado de la casa volaron, con el trineo lleno de juguetes y San Nicolás también.
Y entonces, en un abrir y cerrar de ojos, escuché en el techo el galopar y golpeteo de cada pequeña pezuña. Mientras metía mi cabeza y me daba la vuelta, por la chimenea bajó San Nicolás con un salto.”
This translation captures the spirit and content of the original English poem, although some words or expressions may vary slightly in their interpretation to maintain the Spanish flow and rhyme.
Santa Claus, the Chimney, and the Lapland Tradition
If you’re looking for how to decorate your chimney at Christmas, you may not care for a logical explanation to this story. Nor do you want to give children an answer that turns magic into something more ordinary. Anyway, the explanation of how he can enter through the chimney is much simpler and more logical than you think if you consider the concepts it comes from.
Lappish cabins only have one entrance, which serves as both the door and the smoke outlet for the chimney. That’s why entering through the door or through the chimney is actually the same thing. If we translate it to our chimneys, it’s natural that the question of how it can be possible arises. But in Finland and the traditional homes of the ancient inhabitants, seeing someone, no matter how thick they may be, enter through the chimney would be the most normal thing in the world.