Why Does Santa Claus Come Down the Chimney?

iStock
iStock

Santa Claus as we know him today has only existed since the 19th century, and he first slid down the chimney in a 1812 book by Washington Irving. But the fireplace served as a venue for magical visitors long before Santa Claus. During the 15th century, the French scholar Petrus Mamoris became concerned about a widespread belief that witches could pass through solid objects like walls and closed doors in order to enter homes. Believing Christians were granting too much power to the occult, Mamoris offered a practical explanation: witches, elves, and the like simply entered via the chimney. This idea gained widespread cultural currency. In Renaissance-era fairy tales, fairies appeared via chimneys, and during the same period, witches were said to fly up their chimneys on broomsticks to attend Sabbat meetings.

Throughout European folklore, the hearth and chimney act as a liminal space connecting the natural and supernatural worlds. According to legend, many supernatural creatures exploit this special intermediary space to enter homes—for good or ill. Scottish and English legend feature the brownie, a household spirit that aids in domestic tasks, but only at night, and enters and exits via the chimney. In Slovenia, a shape-shifting fairy called the Skrat brings riches to human families who cultivate his favor, flying down the chimney in a fiery form when delivering money. According to Celtic lore, a nursery bogie called the bodach sneaks down chimneys and kidnaps children. Some chimney-traveling spirits appear specifically during the winter holidays. In Greece, goblins known as Kallikantzaroi slip down the chimney to wreak havoc during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Italy’s La Befana, sometimes called the Christmas witch, delivers gifts the night before Epiphany, leaving her presents in shoes set by the fireplace.

While La Befana wasn’t making widespread deliveries in the early United States, other mythical holiday gift-bringers were. Pelznichol—also called Pelznikel, Belsnickel, or Bellschniggle—traveled among German immigrant communities in 19th-century Pennsylvania, scaring naughty children and rewarding good ones. This whip-wielding wild man was a bit more intimidating than jolly old Santa Claus, but he served a similar purpose.

According to a December 19, 1827 issue of the Philadelphia Gazette, “He is the precursor of the jolly old elfe ‘Christkindle’ or ‘St. Nicholas,’ and makes his personal appearance, dressed in skins or old clothes, his face black, a bell, a whip, and a pocket full of cakes or nuts ... It is no sooner dark than the Bellschniggle’s bell is heard flitting from house to house ... He slips down the chimney, at the fairy hour of midnight, and deposits his presents quietly in the prepared stocking.” Pelznichol comes from the German word pelz, meaning hide or fur coat, and Nichol, meaning Nicholas. Literally “Furry Nicholas,” Pelznichol was a forerunner to the American Santa Claus—and a mythical companion of the same ancient saint.

iStock

While the character of Santa Claus draws from numerous mythical sources, his namesake is St. Nicholas, the 4th-century Bishop of Myra, an ancient town in what is now Turkey. In the most famous tale involving St. Nicholas, the bishop anonymously delivers bags of gold to a poor family to use as dowries for their daughters, keeping the father from selling the girls into prostitution. Early versions of the story have the saint tossing the money through the window—appropriate, given that St. Nicholas lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries, 900 years before the chimney. But as the story changed over time, St. Nicholas began dropping the gold down the chimney. A 14th-century fresco in a Serbian church shows the chimney had become part of the legend by the early Renaissance period.

Thanks to his generous dowry gifts and a host of miracles—including resurrecting a group of murdered boys who had been chopped into pieces—St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children, and his feast day was associated with special treats for the little ones. By the 16th century, it was tradition for Dutch children to leave their shoes on the hearth the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas. They would then wake to find the shoes filled with candy and presents, which they believed the saint had lowered down the chimney. Though Catholic saints were renounced during the Reformation, St. Nicholas stayed popular in the Low Countries, even among some Dutch Protestants, and Dutch settlers brought their traditions to North America.

The name Santa Claus is an Americanized version of the abbreviated Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, but Dutch colonists did not popularize him, as most of these were saint-averse Reformation Dutch, and their influence waned once New Amsterdam became New York. In 1809, it was writer Washington Irving who helped spark an interest in St. Nicholas when he featured the saint in his satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which made fun of antiquarians obsessed with the city’s Dutch heritage. In an expanded version of Knickerbocker’s published in 1812, Irving added a reference—the first known—to St. Nicholas “rattl[ing] down the chimney” himself, rather than simply dropping the presents down.

By Thomas Nast, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

It was the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”—that popularized the idea of Santa Claus tumbling down the chimney. Initially published anonymously, the poem first appeared in print in 1823 and it wasn’t until 1844 that Clement Clark Moore, a professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at a bible college, claimed the work, though his authorship is still disputed by some. The poem features Santa Claus descending down the chimney “with a bound,” then rising up the chimney after delivering his gifts. The poem began to be published annually in newspapers and magazines, and the illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast cemented its vision of Santa Claus with his drawings of a plump, cheerful, bearded man delivering gifts in a sleigh.

Millions of American children came to believe that Santa Claus slid down the chimney to deliver their presents. But what does Santa do if there’s no chimney? As coal and wood stoves took the place of open fireplaces in many American homes, a parallel tradition developed: Santa squeezed down the stove pipe. By 1857, this image was common enough that The New York Times referred to it as a given.

It might seem ridiculous to imagine the portly gift-bringer somehow stuffing himself into a six-inch stove pipe, but during the mid-19th century, Santa Claus was envisioned differently in one key way: he was miniature. In his poem, Moore calls Santa “a jolly old elf,” suggesting his size is elfin: he is a “little old driver” in a “miniature sleigh” with “eight tiny reindeer.” He has a “droll little mouth,” and it’s his “little round belly” that “shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.”

Illustrations from the time, including many of Nast’s drawings, show a miniature Santa who needs to stand on a chair to reach the stockings on the mantelpiece. But while this elfin Santa could slide easily down the chimney, even he would have difficulty squeezing through a stove pipe. In published letters to Santa, some children inquired about his method of entry: “Do you crawl down stove pipes?” Of course, Santa Claus is magical, so while children may have been curious about the practicalities involved, it wasn’t a barrier to belief. One boy told Santa confidently in 1903, “I watch for you every night in the stove.”

By Thomas Nast - ‘The Invention of Santa Claus’ Exhibit, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Adults were not as sanguine. In 1893, Harper’s Weekly published a worried opinion piece about the decline of Santa Claus. The stove pipe made it harder to believe in Santa, the author observed, but the rise of steam radiators and hot-air heating made it essentially impossible:

"We know of no contemporary personage who is suffering more from allowing himself to drop behind the times than our friend Santa Claus. […] The downward course of Santa Claus began with the introduction of the cast-iron stove. As long as the old-fashioned fireplace lasted he was secure. As the children gathered around this romantic old fraud, toasting their toes while their backs gradually but surely congealed, the story of Santa Claus and his chimney-descending habits seemed entirely probable. There was scarcely a single stumbling-block for faith. […] But after the arrival of the comfortable albeit unromantic stove, when the child was told of Santa Claus, he simply looked at the pipe and put his tongue in his cheek. Still, he tried to believe in him, and succeeded after a fashion. Then even the stove disappeared in many households, to be succeeded by the steam-radiator or a hot-air hole in the floor. The notion of Santa Claus coming down a steam-pipe or up through a register was even more absurd than the idea of his braving the dimensions of a stove-pipe. […] Now it occurs to us that all this might have been avoided if people had had the wisdom to keep Santa Claus up with the times. […] When the air-tight stove was introduced, a mode of ingress other than the chimney should have been provided."

This author needn’t have worried; Americans were not about to let Santa Claus disappear from cultural memory. Indeed, as the 20th century dawned, he became only more popular, as businesses enlisted him for copious advertising campaigns, like the famous 1930s Coca-Cola ads designed by Haddon Sundblom.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Additional Sources:
Christmas in America: A History
Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays
Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus
Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Who Were the Actual Brooks Brothers?

Phillip Pessar, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Phillip Pessar, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Brooks Brothers has been a mainstay of American formal wear for more than 200 years. The company’s suits have been worn by 40 U.S. presidents. They have supplied uniforms to the American armed forces and suits to regular people for their most important life events: going to the prom, attending their first job interview, getting married.

But in July 2020, the firm filed for bankruptcy, likely a victim of the working-from-home trend and the move towards more casual clothing. The Brooks Brothers’s name has been woven into the fabric of American fashion, yet a certain mystery surrounds the people behind the business. Who were the original Brooks Brothers, anyway?

The firm that would go on to be known as Brooks Brothers was established on April 7, 1818, by 45-year-old Henry Sands Brooks and his younger brother, David, as H & D. H. Brooks and Co. Before setting up the store, Henry Sands Brooks had been a provisioner for traders and seafarers, and likely did brisk business in New York City’s seaport. Their shop was situated on the corner of Catherine and Cherry streets in Lower Manhattan, a major shopping district that supported a number of clothing stores. It was said Brooks was something of a dandy with an eye for fashion.

Brooks Brothers ran a full-page ad celebrating its centenary in 1918.New York Evening Post // Public Domain

Henry Sands Brooks died in 1833, and the store passed to his eldest son, Henry Jr. When he died in 1850, Brooks Sr.’s four younger sons Daniel, John, Elisha, and Edward inherited the firm and renamed it Brooks Brothers. At this point, the store began to stand out from the crowd. The brothers adopted their familiar logo of a sheep suspended by a ribbon representing the Golden Fleece. This ancient symbol hearkened back to the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, and was used by tailors and wool merchants across Europe as a sign of quality. By embracing this symbol, the brothers were announcing the caliber of their goods and aligning themselves with the prestige of European fashion.

While building a brand on traditional quality, the brothers also saw an opportunity to modernize. Brooks Brothers began specializing in ready-to-wear suits—an innovation that made “gentlemen’s clothing” accessible and affordable to ordinary Americans. An advertisement in New York’s Evening Post in June 1850 stated that Brooks Brothers ‘have on hand a large stock of ready-made clothing, suited to the tastes and wants of purchasers.’ Brooks Brothers also capitalized on the California Gold Rush by selling their ready-made suits to gold-seekers who didn’t have time to wait for a tailor to construct bespoke suits.

Business boomed in the years leading up to the Civil War, a time when the company benefited from slavery. Much of the cotton used by Brooks Brothers was picked by enslaved laborers in the South. The company also manufactured the types of uniforms worn by enslaved people forced to work as house servants.

Perhaps as a result of their experience making such clothing, Brooks Brothers was given a large contract by the Union government at the start of the Civil War to provide tens of thousands of uniforms for enlisted soldiers. A scandal blew up when the garments were delivered: it was obvious that the uniforms were of low quality, missing buttons or buttonholes, and made from cheap scraps of cloth glued instead of sewn together. When the outfits were exposed to wind and rain, they fell apart. In the rush to manufacture them for the war effort, Brooks Brothers had, in fact, substituted cheap and flimsy material instead of the usual grade of cloth—they were allowed to, according to the provisions written into their contract.

The New York state legislature launched an investigation, accusing the company of profiteering. When asked how much money the company had made by downgrading the cloth, Elisha Brooks prevaricated. “I think that I cannot ascertain the difference without spending more time than I can now devote to that purpose,” Brooks told lawmakers. Ultimately, Brooks Brothers agreed to replace 2350 of the substandard uniforms at a cost of $45,000.

An illustration of looters throwing trousers and other garments out of the Brooks Brothers store during New York City's draft riots appeared on the front page of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on August 1, 1863.Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 19th Century American Newspapers, Gale Primary Sources // Public Domain

The company’s association with outfitting the Union Army got them into trouble again in July 1863. The casualties among members of New York regiments were increasing as the war showed no signs of resolution. In New York City, working class people protested against the draft, and the protests quickly turned into a riot of racist violence and looting. Brooks Brothers’s Cherry Street store was one of the establishments it targeted. Harper’s Weekly reported that “a large number of marauders paid a visit to the extensive clothing-store of Messrs. Brooks Brothers … there they helped themselves to such articles as they wanted, after which they might be seen dispersing in all directions, laden with their ill-gotten booty.”

Brooks Brothers’s reputation didn’t suffer for long, however. At his second presidential inauguration in March 1865, Abraham Lincoln wore a greatcoat made by the company. It featured an eagle embroidered into its lining with the motto “One Country, One Destiny.” Lincoln was wearing the same coat when, just two weeks later, he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. After his death, Mary Todd Lincoln gave the coat to Alphonse Donn, a doorman at the White House, who kept it for the rest of his life. Donn’s family eventually sold the coat to the United States Capitol Historical Society, and it is now in the Ford’s Theatre museum's collection.

Brooks Brothers continued to grow and expand. The company introduced enduring fashions such as the button-down polo shirt in 1896, the sack suit in 1901, and their own version of a British regimental tie, the striped rep tie, in 1902.

For more than 200 years, the company has outfitted presidents, Wall Street traders, and businesspeople, becoming an iconic American brand with worldwide appeal. But today, their future may be less certain.