When I was much younger, we didn’t have a fireplace in our house—and therefore no chimney. Because of this, there was always concern about how Santa would get us our presents. Despite this fear, every Christmas morning my two brothers and I would wake up to a pile of presents under the Christmas tree. We’d also find a set of boot prints on our deck leading up to the back door. I guess Santa has some lockpicking skills at his disposal.
By the time we moved into a house with a fireplace and a chimney, I didn’t really worry about how Santa would get to us anymore. But I never forgot those boot prints.
Santa didn’t always shimmy down people’s fireplaces, just as he didn’t always fly a sleigh.
Our modern jolly Santa Claus is based on a 4th-century Christian saint and Bishop, St. Nicholas. He was known for his piety and kindness and particularly for his protection of children and sailors. He would travel around in his red robes and give gifts to the poor. Legend has it that he dropped some gold coins down a family’s chimney, and they landed in a girl’s stocking.
Since at least the High Middle Ages, people have been celebrating Christmastide. Pagans celebrated a figure dressed in a long green hooded cloak and a wreath of holly, ivy or mistletoe. Festivities including merry-making, signing, and drinking became the first associations with the English “personification” of Christmas. During the 17th century, writers defended Christmas from the Puritans through personification. Father Christmas was essentially banned but was revived again during the Victorian era.
A little of this, a little of that…join together St Nicholas and the English Father Christmas and you get the American “Santa Claus”.
The name Santa Claus was first used in 1773 as a derivative of the Dutch St Nicholas, “Sinterklaas”.
In his 1809 History of New York, Washington Irving pictures Santa Claus as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. In 1812, Irving’s revision of History of New York includes Santa using chimneys as an access point to deliver the gifts himself, rather than simply dropping them down the chimney. This is the first record of his doing so. Irving also depicts St. Nicholas soaring over the treetops in a flying wagon. The modern Santa look was pretty much established after the anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, known today as “The Night Before Christmas”, on December 23, 1823. Clement Clarke Moore, the claimed author, describes St. Nick as a “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly” with a “miniature sleigh” and “eight tiny reindeer”. Here, he uses the chimney as a point of entry:
From there on in, Santa squeezing his round little jiggling belly down chimneys became Christmas canon.
Today it’s easy to think that Santa would climb down a chimney given his stature and for the sheer fact that, well, not everyone has a chimney. But the truth is, historically, fireplaces played an important role in the home and played a pretty significant role in folklore.
During the 1400s, a French scholar named Petrus Mamoris grew concerned about a widespread belief that witches could pass through solid objects to enter homes. To take away some of the occult’s power, he offered a simple, practical explanation: witches, elves, and other magical creatures actually entered homes via the chimney. This notion stuck and spread. Renaissance-era fairy tales depicted fairies appearing by the chimney. During this same period, people believed witches flew up their chimneys on broomsticks to attend Sabbat meetings.
Throughout European folklore, the hearth and chimney serve as a sort of in-between space linking the earthly world with the spirit world. There are a number of legends and creatures that utilize the fireplace and chimney to enter homes—for better or worse. The brownie of Scottish and English folklore would come down the chimney at night and help clean. The Celtic Bodach (a type of Goblin) was said to creep down chimneys and kidnap children. Italy’s La Befana comes into people’s homes the night before Epiphany via the chimney and may fill children’s shoes with either good things or bad things.
Eventually, coal and wood stoves replaced open fireplaces in American homes; however, Santa’s Christmastide presence didn’t waver. He simply squeezed down the stove pipe. And even though St. Nick shifted from being a miniature, elven-figure to a large, heavyset person, he is magical, after all, so inquiries into the practicalities of entry wasn’t really a barrier to belief. And it still isn’t, for plenty of children today.
If you’re looking for tips on cleaning your chimney before Santa arrives, we’ve got you covered! Check out our post here.
Sarah is a content writer and social media assistant with a BA in literature/creative writing from Wilkes University. When she’s not spending her days at work writing, reading, and drinking coffee, she’s usually at home reading, writing, and drinking coffee. She also devotes a fair amount of time to HGTV, drawing, and doting on her dog. As a creator, Sarah believes in emphasizing personality through design and DIY projects.