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

What Makes Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

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iStock.com/JoeChristensen

By tilting its head slightly to the side, a dog can melt the heart of even the most hardened cat person. Most everyone finds this behavior adorable, but few people can explain what compels a dog to do it. Are dogs somehow aware of the effect they have on humans, using a cute trick to exploit us for affection?

Experts say the real answer has more to do with your dog's ability to empathize. Dogs are impressively good at reading and responding to our body language and vocal cues. When you're lecturing your pooch for taking food off the counter, they're taking it all in even if the literal message gets lost in translation. Same goes for when you’re giving your pup praise. Dogs are capable of recognizing certain parts of human language, so when they cock their heads as you speak to them, it's possible they're listening for specific words and inflections they associate with fun activities like meals and playtime.

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The head-tilt may also have something to do with how the canine ear is constructed. Even though dogs sense frequencies humans are incapable of hearing, their ability to detect the source of sounds is less precise than ours. A dog's brain calculates extremely minuscule differences between the time it takes a sound to reach each ear, so a simple change in head position could provide them with useful sensory information. When dogs tilt their heads, some experts believe they are adjusting their pinnae, or outer ears, in order to better pinpoint the location of a noise.

Stanley Coren of Psychology Today believes that vision also has something to do with this behavior. If you try holding your fist in front of your nose, you can get a fair sense of what it’s like to view the world with a muzzle. When watching someone speak, the "muzzle" will block the lower part of their face from view, and if you tilt your head to one side you will be able to see it more clearly. In addition to being able to perceive emotional cues in our voices, dog can also read our facial expressions. When cocking their heads to the side, Coren suggests that dogs are trying to get a better view of our mouths, where our most expressive facial cues originate.

If your dog is a frequent head-tilter, this could mean that they're especially empathetic. Some experts have reported that dogs who are more socially apprehensive are less likely to tilt their heads when spoken to. But if your dog doesn't display this behavior, there's no need to automatically label them as a canine sociopath (especially if they have pointy ears or a flatter snout). And even if the head tilt does come from instinct, the more owners respond to it with positive reinforcement, the more likely dogs are to do it in search of praise.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

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