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Why Is Santa So Fat?

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Lisa F. Young / Shutterstock.com

Poor Santa. He's a big guy and everyone knows it. He's probably the last person it's socially acceptable to describe as having a "belly like a bowl full of jelly.” We're not helping with his weight problem, either. On Saturday night, he'll be guzzling down a few million cookies and glasses of milk. This heavyweight Santa we know today has a much different body type than he used to. Most depictions of Santa's predecessors - Father Christmas and St. Nicholas - are 75 to 100 pounds lighter. When exactly did Santa put on all that weight?

A trim and fit St. Nicholas walking with Krampus on an 1899 Czech card.

Editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast - known as the father of the American cartoon - developed our modern image of Santa in the mid-19th century, beginning with an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Nast drew both the cover and a center-fold illustration, which paid tribute to the sacrifices of soldiers and their families during the Civil War. A noticeably more filled-out Santa is there to ease their plight with toys and Christmas cheer. Over the next few years, Nast's Santa got bigger and bigger, and other illustrators began drawing similarly pump Kris Kringles.

Nast didn't invent fat Santa out of whole cloth, though, and may have modeled his depiction after the titular character of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”). The poem says that Nick had "a broad face and a little round belly/That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly./He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf/And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself." To be fair, it also described Santa as a "little old driver" in a "miniature sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer."  In other words, he was sort of elfish, but still a fat elf. If Nast borrowed from the poem, though, where did its author come up with the idea for a fat Santa?

On St. Nicholas Day in 1809, Washington Irving published the satirical A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, attributing it to fictional Dietrich Knickerbocker. The book was full of references to St. Nicholas, whom New York's Dutch founders would have called Sinterklaas. Irving didn't describe Nicholas as the traditional saintly bishop, but as a short, stocky guy in a low and wide brimmed hat smoking a pipe—a contemporary stereotypical image of a Dutch sailor.

Lest a Santa based on a parody of New York's Dutch culture and Dutchmen ruin your holiday, there may be an older influence, too. Central figures in some  of the ancient pagan winter festivals of Europe, like the Holly King and the Oak King, bear more than a passing resemblance to Santa. Instead of poking fun at Dutch seamen, Irving's Santa may have been a conscious or unconscious re-fattening and re-paganizing of the Christian St. Nick.

The traditional European St. Nicholas, Washington Irving's Sinterklaas, and the twentieth-century American Santa Claus. From 1942's Santa Claus Comes to America (Caroline Singer and Cyrus Baldridge).

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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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