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Like many of our rituals and traditions today, Santa’s legend is rooted in religion. But civilization has a way of adapting ancient folklore to society’s modern needs, and Santa is no exception. Most of us don’t fill our shoes with sugar lumps and carrots and put them under the chimney for Odin’s magnificent flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat as he leads his horseman through a great expedition across the sky; instead, we hang stockings. Most mall Santas don’t wear bishops’ hats; their attire is red, not green. Rudolph and his iconic glowing nose debuted in Santa’s entourage a hundred years after the other eight reindeer.
But there are some fundamental elements of the Santa folklore that remain constant. The spirit of Christmas, a time of celebration, warmth, generosity, commercialism, and, thankfully, a little magic, are embodied in one iconic figure with “a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.” Santa has had a colorful and sometimes controversial past: his modern image is part god, part saint, part political symbol, part salesman. Who knows how Santa will evolve (will he ever outsource his toy-making? Rig a jet-powered sleigh, perhaps? Employ the latest teleportation technology?), but he’ll always be a part of Christmas.