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Why Does Santa Claus Come Down the Chimney?

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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.

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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

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Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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