The Many Faces of Santa: From St. Nicholas to Saxy Santa

Saxophone-playing Santa in Beijing
A saxophone-playing Santa decorates the city streets of Beijing in December 2006. Western-style Santa's made inroads into China in recent decades, and he often seems to be holding everyone's favorite woodwind instrument. No one's exactly clear why though. PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images


Children often wonder how Santa Claus makes it around the world in one night. We might also marvel at how the idea of Santa has traversed the globe in the 1,674 years since St. Nicholas died.

That's right. Lest ye forget, the legacy of Santa extends back to a very real man: the Christian Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who lived in Asia Minor from 270-343. According to Adam C. English, chair of the department of Christian studies at Campbell University and author of "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra," about the only common thread between Nicholas and Santa is the gift giving.

"Santa has been scrubbed of any and all religious identity," English notes via email. "I think that is something people notice when they see the 'European' 'old-world' St. Nicks, who are dressed like bishops, with a miter, stoll, ecclesial vestments, a crozier staff, and many times wearing a crucifix or cross on the neck. In contrast, Santa has been 'domesticated,' 'commercialized' and 'universalized' (or secularized, depending on your viewpoint). The miter has been softened into a floppy fur trimmed stocking cap. The vestments have been turned into a red, fur suit with white trimming. The stoll into the big black belt, and the crozier staff into a large sack of toys."

English stresses that Christmas has always been a blend of sacred and secular, popular and solemn. A pure holiday of Christian remembrance likely never existed. But even as St. Nicholas gave way to the Dutch Sinterklaas, his Americanization into Santa Claus rendered the figure almost unrecognizable.

St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas, pictured here, and his dress softened and evolved quite a bit to bring us the modern Santa we know today.
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

"The first depiction of Nicholas in America by the New York Historical Society showed him as a stern bishop in the European fashion," English says, "but within 50 years he transformed into the magical elf who drives a sleigh pulled by reindeer and drops down chimneys."

For many, the historic St. Nicholas is a distant shade – and unless your Christmas customs invoke pious Nicholas, the modern commercialized Santa Claus dominates your holiday. While glimpsing his origins clarifies his longevity, we can gain additional insight by looking to Santa's more recent expansions – such as his late 20th-century arrival in the People's Republic of China.

Christmas in China

As Beijing-based journalist Helen Gao explored in her 2011 article in The Atlantic, "What China Loves About Christmas, and Doesn't," the Western holiday didn't enter mainstream Chinese society until the 1990s. But the decorative and commercial aspects of Christmas have flourished and continue to flourish there, especially with increased international travel by Chinese people.

"So now if you go to any public sites on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, you'll see a lot more young people celebrating," Gao says. "There are a lot more people embracing all sorts of rituals that are not necessarily authentic but are certainly interesting."

Gao gave the example of Christmas Eve Apples, an entirely new Chinese holiday innovation based on the similarities between the Mandarin words for "Christmas Eve" (píng ān yè) and "apple" (píng guǒ).

"So when it's close to Christmas in a lot of groceries, you'll see apples with a print of Santa's face on it," Gao says. "Or there'll be a piece of paper in the shape of Santa covering the apple in very nice packaging. So that's certainly not a Western tradition, but you see it in China."

The Saga of Saxy Santa

The most notable Chinese addition to the holiday, however, is Santa Claus' use of the saxophone – a trend that journalist Max Fisher reported on for The Washington Post in 2012. The pairing is baffling to many Westerners, and yet for most Chinese, Saxy Santa is just another part of this imported holiday.

Six years later, Gao says, you'll still see these jazzy St. Nicks at restaurants, shopping malls and on the street in Chinese cities, but like so many aspects of holiday traditions around the world, the meaning isn't necessarily clear.

"I've asked people in China why Santa is playing saxophone, and no one knows why, and no one found it strange," Gao says. "It's just something people are used to seeing, and they don't think about it."

She suspects that since Santa entered Chinese culture after the cultural revolution of the 1980s, he may have merged with one of the many other certifiably Western imports: the saxophone.

"With this whole influx of Western culture and artifacts, I think it's possible that when they were designing decorations, they came up with this idea and it became popular," Gao says.

In his 2012 article, Fisher went so far as to theorize that Bill Clinton's 1992 saxophone performance on "The Arsenio Hall Show" might have played a role in elevating the saxophone to Santa's instrument of choice. The truth of the matter, however, remains a Christmas mystery.

In so many Christmas traditions, we see the figure of Santa Claus absorb existing cultural motifs. He merged with Britain's Father Christmas, the Germanic god Woden and Russia's Ded Moroz or "old man frost." But Santa is a relative newcomer to Chinese traditions and, as such, Gao says you won't find Santa wearing a Confucian robe.

door gods in China
A Chinese mansion displays door gods at its gate. Sometimes you can find Santa taking the place of traditional door gods during Christmastime.
Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

And yet, according to Gao, Chinese households with double doors sometimes boast twin images of Santa – a place also reserved for Chinese New Year posters and the traditional Mén Shén or "door gods."

"It originated in the countryside when people were celebrating Chinese New Year," Gao says. "They would sometimes put up local deities, and they were usually gods that people prayed to for more wealth, for fertility and for longevity, and they would put the images of those gods up on their doors. And sometimes you see people putting Santa on their door in the same way they did back then."

That's not to say Santa has a divine place in Chinese traditions – quite the opposite. In America, St. Nicholas became a secular holiday mascot, a festive symbol that merely stands in the place of older beliefs. That's the Santa China imported from the West — with one minor, saxy embellishment.

Echoes of the Saint

What would Nicholas of Myra make of modern Christmas and its Santas? Adam C. English thinks the fourth-century bishop would have challenged us to go beyond familial gift giving.

"Nicholas gave gifts to people he did not know or owe anything to. And he gave to those in serious need," English says. "So, his challenge to us would be, in addition to giving gifts to family members, find ways to anonymously give gifts to those in need at this time of year. But, I would also add that Nicholas also would challenge us to go beyond the simple gift. A number of the stories from the life of Nicholas involve him opposing injustice and defending justice. I think Nicholas would have us investigate further and ask about what can be done to improve the long-term quality of life of those who find themselves in need at this time of year."