By Janet Klug
In case you haven't noticed, Christmas is coming. Among other things, that means the most famous man on Earth will be paying nocturnal visits to the homes of good little boys and girls all over the world. He has gifts for them all, but how he manages to make his miraculous deliveries on Christmas Eve is still a mystery.
The famous man is known in the United States as "Santa Claus," but he goes by many names, depending on where you are in the world. His image has appeared on thousands of stamps from many different countries.
The name Santa Claus derives from Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, pawnbrokers and a few other surprising groups of people.
In the Netherlands and countries where Dutch is spoken, St. Nicholas is called Sinterklaas. It is from the Dutch name "Sinterklaas" that the United States gets Santa Claus.
Figure 1 shows the 1961 Netherlands Sinterklaas semipostal (Scott B358), showing Sinterklaas dressed as a bishop.
Nicholas was indeed the bishop of Myra in Turkey in the 4th century. His good acts earned him sainthood, but facts and legends have muddled Saint Nicholas' history, due in large part to early 19th century children's literature.
In 1821, a children's book titled The Children's Friend was published in the United States. It was a poem about Santa Claus, who arrived from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. The illustrations in this book, which is said to be the first fully illustrated lithographed book published in America, changed Saint Nicholas' bishop's garb into something more secular.
Two years later, Dr. Clement Moore wrote a poem titled "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" that further molded Saint Nicholas into the modern-day version of Santa Claus. He was described as a jolly, old elf dressed all in fur and traveled in a sleigh powered by eight tiny reindeer.
The 8¢ stamp in Figure 2 depicts Saint Nicholas as described in Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas." Issued in 1972, this was the first U.S. postage stamp to show an image of Santa Claus (Scott 1472).
In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast's picture of Santa Claus, dressed in a fur-trimmed costume of stars and stripes while visiting battle-weary Civil War troops, appeared in the magazine Harper's Weekly. The Nast images of Santa reinforced Moore's splendid description of the jolly old elf. By the 1880s everyone around the world had a good idea of what Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus really looked like, thanks to Clement Moore and Thomas Nast.
Santa/Saint Nicholas is not the most popular name for our "most famous man on Earth." Much of the world calls him Father Christmas. Children in the United Kingdom and nearly all of the British Commonwealth eagerly await the arrival of Father Christmas.
Figure 3 is a 1997 British stamp (Scott 1776) showing Father Christmas engaging in the British Christmas tradition of pulling a cracker with two small children.
In Italy, Father Christmas is Babbo Natale. The 1999 Italian stamp (Scott 2314) in Figure 4 shows Babbo Natale. Finland partnered with Italy that year to issue joint Christmas stamps, and their version of the same stamp (1117) shows Joulupukki (Father Christmas).
In South Africa he is Vader Kersfees. Lithuania calls him Kaledu Senelis, and in Denmark he is known as Julemanden.
Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus/Father Christmas also goes by other names.
He is called Viejo Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) in Chile. Figure 5 shows Viejo Pascuero dashing around, trying to get all of the gifts delivered and clearly working up a sweat that needs to be cooled in front of a fan. This block of four Chilean stamps (Scott 1488) was issued in 2007.
Like Chile, China calls its Santa figure a similar "Christmas Old Man." Similar in meaning to Chile's name for Santa, it is not similar sounding: Dun Che Lao Ren. In Russia he is Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). Grandfather Frost is shown on a Russian stamp issued in 2005 in Figure 6 (Scott 6927).
In Japan, Santa Claus is Hoteiosho (gift-bearing priest). In 2006, Japan issued stamps that depict Hoteiosho as both a bear and a cat, as shown in Figures 7 and 8.
No matter what you and your favorite children call Santa Claus, I hope he brings you a Merry Christmas.
For more information about collecting Christmas subjects on stamps, contact the Christmas Philatelic Club, Box 744, Geneva, OH 44041; or visit the club website at http://web.295.ca/cpc.