The legend of Santa Claus has existed for centuries, with different stories from across the world. Whether he is known as Father Christmas or St. Nicholas, his joyful tale has enchanted children and given Christmas a magical aspect enjoyed by many. Now, Santa Claus, the jolly bringer of gifts, uses the chimney to visit homes and delight children. Keeping the chimney clean and the cookies ready, let’s dive into the common stories of Santa Claus and the warmth of a hearth.
Washington Irving’s Tale of St. Nicholas
The first story we have of Santa Claus coming down the chimney comes from none other than American author Washington Irving. He is best known for Halloween favorite “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. In the early 1800’s, Irving published a tongue-in-cheek book with the arduous title, ” Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” This satirical ride chronicles New York’s fifty years under Dutch rule in the 1600’s. In his tale, the first mention of Santa Claus has him entering the homes of children through the chimney. St. Nicholas is described as “riding jollily among the treetops or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites.” And sometimes, Irving notes, Santa himself “rattles down the chimneys” to deliver presents to children.
Irving’s book, with its dozens of allusions to St. Nicholas, was a hit with American readers. It helped shape holiday traditions here — especially the new idea of a Santa who used the Christmas chimney to bring sweets and gifts.
But Wait — There’s “Moore”!
While Irving briefly mentioned chimneys, Santa’s actual “method” wouldn’t be fully described until another 15 or so years later. “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” the poem by Clement Clarke Moore, gave a vivid picture of a rosy-cheeked Santa with a snow white beard — as well as the important detail that his fur clothes were covered with soot from the chimney.
After the poem’s narrator famously hears “the prancing and pawing” of reindeers on his roof, suddenly “Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.” After filling stockings, St. Nicholas quickly rises back up the chimney, and onto his sleigh. This poem is more commonly known today as, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” which has expanded on Father Christmas and all the magic he brings.
So Why the Chimney?
Of course, the St. Nicholas/Santa’s descent down the chimney has entranced generations of children. But across the ages, it begs the questions: Why not use the door or windows? What made Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and other early authors choose that particular entry point?
As it turns out, magical folk entering ordinary homes have loomed large in the public imagination since at least Europe’s Middle Ages. The idea began with the idea of witchcraft, and the superstitious thought that witches could pass through walls and solid barriers. To combat this widespread fear, the book, Mallues Maleficarum, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger wrote that witches instead could enter a home by climbing down the chimney. It could be argued that this attempt to counter common folklore failed in a big way, given that since that time Greek goblin tales, Scottish traditions of kindly brownie fairies, and stories of an Italian bringer of sweets— all of whom entered through chimneys — have flourished.
The Santa chimney legend has certainly had a twisty road. Religious scholars, European traditions, and American writers have all added to our current knowledge of the “real” Santa. It’s these magical glimpses of history that allow today’s children to feel the excitement and joy of Santa traveling down the chimney to leave gifts and treats Christmas morning!