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.

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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