The picture of Santa Claus as a jolly, pot bellied old white man from the North Pole dominates the tradition in Europe and N. America. However, among Africans who observe the tradition, the idea of Santa as an old white man from the North Pole is unknown.
For Nigerian Christians who include visits to Santa Claus in their Christmas tradition, Santa Claus simply is an old white-bearded man of mysterious origins who brings little kids goodies during Christmas.
So don't be surprised at the photos below that show African Santas with white beards but black faces. It may seem odd to North Americans and Europeans who have infused the Santa tradition with strong elements of Nordic folklore and culture: jolly, red-faced,old white man in red winter clothing, snowfields, reindeer-pulled sleigh, chimneys and stockings. These elements of the Western tradition are disregarded in Africa by African Christians most of whom see Santa Claus only as part of their Christian culture (perhaps mistakenly) and celebrate without regard to the elements of the tradition that North Americans and Europeans consider essential.
Many of the dominant elements of the Santa tradition cherished in North America and Europe are unknown in Nigeria.
Here in Nigeria, kids don't get told that Santa would climb down the chimney during the night and leave presents in their stockings or that naughty kids get nothing from Santa. Adults do not consciously attempt to foster the notion that Santa is real. Santa is simply a make-believe side show in the Christmas fun outing and kids get that impression as soon as they are old enough to think about it. During the Christmas season, Santa Claus, a jolly white-bearded black-faced old man, visits schools, and for unknown reasons, he sets up residence in darkened rooms where he plays host to mystified and sometimes frightened kids to whom he hands out presents.
Sometimes, he takes up residence in similarly darkened rooms in stores and shopping malls where scores of children stand in line to "see" him, after their parents have paid a fee (children never notice that). He holds you on his laps, says some nice things you hardly ever listen to and then hands you a package you can't wait to rip open.
I recall as a child that Santa Claus (better known then as "Father Christmas" after the British tradition) was simply on old white-bearded man who visits the school in the Christmas season and brings gifts. And that was what endeared us to him, the gifts he brought. But I also recall that before my senior years at elementary school, he was a disturbingly creepy, scary old man with a strange habit of lurking in darkened recesses. Visiting him was a frightening experience. In the 1970s, the old Kingsway Stores in Lagos and Ibadan had elaborate Santa grottoes. He lived in a dark cavernous recess, accessible only by a ride on a miniature train through a poorly lighted tunnel populated by clockwork elves, goblins and fairies. I am not sure that adults realized how frightening the plunge into the mysterious darkness of Santa's world was to kids then. Though, apparently, the gifts he gave out were worth the risk of the trip into the nether realm of Santa's world. For many years I had a photo showing me and a friend at about five or six years of age sitting on Santa's lap, eyes half-closed, frozen in fright.
But as we grew up, we read books imported to Nigeria from the US and Europe, and watched British and American TV programs and movies and became familiar with the details of the traditions associated with his character in North America and Europe.
However, the ":Nigerianization" or "Africanization" of Santa Claus in Nigeria should not be seen as an oddity.The pervasive "North Americanization" of Santa Claus is also a recent phenomenon. In the United States, the modern "Santa Claus" (a term first used in the American media in 1773), and the British figure of "Father Christmas" were merged with the Dutch SinterKlaas (derived from Saint Nicholas of Myra, 270-343 A.D.), and even then in 1773, he was pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe and a green winter coat.
The present popular image of Santa Claus in North America was largely developed in a poem published anonymously in 1821, and attributed to Clement Clarke Moore in 1823. The poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (better known as "The Night Before Christmas") described Santa as an old man who rides a reindeer-pulled sleigh and brings presents to children on Christmas eve. His makes entry through the chimney with a bag full of toys.
He was described as "chubby and plump, jolly old elf" with "a little round belly" that "shook when he laughed like a bowlfull of Jelly." The notion that he climbs in through the chimney is associated with the picture of him as a diminutive elf riding a "miniature sleigh" and "tiny reindeer."
However, the current picture of Santa Claus as a a big, thickly built, potbellied, red faced, jolly old white man, was first set by Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. In January 3, 1863, a picture of Santa Claus as he his currently known appeared in Harper's Weekly.
It is believed that the story that Santa Claus lives in the North Pole was also created by Nast. The original Dutch SinterKlaas visited Holland from Spain in a steamship and not from the North Pole.
North America's Santa Claus and the influence of Norse mythology
It appears that the dominant elements in the North American and European version of Santa Claus were the result of infusion of the figure of Odin, the chief god of Germanic peoples in the pre-Christian era.
Odin, in Norse mythology, is described as leading a great hunting party through the sky, "riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus's reindeer... According to some traditions, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy. This practice still survives in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of France and became associated with Saint Nicholas since Christianization. In other countries it has been replaced by the hanging of stockings at the chimney in home."
The future of Santa in Nigeria
The only factor that sustains the tradition of Santa Claus in Nigeria is its commercialization by businesses and media houses. Otherwise the entire tradition will have long gone obsolete. There is no evidence of enthusiasm for the tradition in Nigeria and it takes intense publicity campaigns by media houses and pressure from their children to force Nigerian parents to participate in the yearly Santa visits in the Christmas season, since unlike his North American counterpart, the Nigerian Santa never climbs down chimneys to deliver gifts on Christmas eve (Nigerian homes don't have chimneys, anyway).
The effect of the almost exclusively commercial nature of the Santa Claus tradition in Nigeria shows in the fact there is practically no recognized body of folklore about him. The betrays the lack of interest or fascination with the character outside his commercial exploitation.
One may only speculate about how long the commercial interest in Santa Claus would sustain the yearly absent-minded routine of visits to Santa in the Christmas season.