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Exhibition takes a peek under Santa's beard

A late Gothic Nicholas without a beard


A fascinating exhibition in Basel traces the centuries-long transformation of Saint Nicholas from holy man to today's Christmas marketing figurehead.

Chosen from the Museum of Ethnology's collection of over 100,000 objects, "Santa Claus & Co." offers a mine of information on Santa's often forgotten origins.

A Christmas season today is unimaginable without seeing Santa dressed in a red robe with white fur edgings.

Impossible to avoid, he grins out from almost every second shop window, climbs up house facades and lights up entire apartment blocks.

Known in different places as Santa Claus, Samichlaus, Sinterklaas, St Nicholas and Father Christmas, he is everywhere. Many companies use him on television and in newspapers to promote all kinds of products.

But despite being seemingly everywhere, most people know nothing about his origins and that's exactly what the exhibition tries to remedy.

Nicholas, a bishop who lived around the year 300 AD in Myra in today's Turkey, is said to have worked many wonders and was later made a saint.

Christmas figurehead

Today he is looked on above all as a kind of marketing guru who does the marketing for Christmas.

Curator Dominik Wunderlin told swissinfo that tracing the meandering path of St Nicholas through the ages therefore seemed like the perfect theme for the museum's Christmas exhibition.

"It was somehow in the air. And there was a certain sense of discomfort which people expressed from time to time that the Christ child was being supplanted by Santa Claus."

Santa's myth seems to have begun with the theft of St Nicholas's relics from Myra from where they were taken to Bari in Italy.

The sacred treasure of the tomb is said to have cured a number of people from illness on the first day, so the place attracted pilgrims.

His fame spread throughout Europe, with his image as a holy man beginning to change over time to that of figure closer to Santa Claus.

Mr Winter

Around 150 years ago a sheet of pictures of "Mr Winter", who bore an astonishing resemblance to today's Santa Claus, was published in Germany. He was a round, jovial and friendly fellow with a sumptuous beard.

As the exhibition shows, Santa Claus continued to develop in Europe and the United States in all kinds of variations, some of which were not particularly flattering.

In selecting some of the exhibits, Wunderlin deliberately wanted to provoke visitors to think about them.

"As a modern scholar of culture I naturally need to be open, also to 'peculiarities' of taste," he said with a smile.

"The line between kitsch and art is a very subjective matter."

Wunderlin said the greatest challenge in mounting the exhibition was "striking a balancing act between the religious aspects of St Nicholas's story and those angles dealing with the profane, secular Santa Claus".

"Offering a glimpse behind the facade of the contemporary Santa Claus is definitely an aim of the exhibition. It's a way of finding out where this figure really came from," he added.

Key facts

St. Nicholas was born in around 270 in what is today Turkey.
His bones were transported to Bari, Italy in 1087.
Around 1100 a relic was brought to France, the beginning of the cult of St. Nicholas in northern Europe.
Between 1847 and 1863 various artist portrayals of Nicholas in red and white came out on both sides of the Atlantic, precursors of the modern Santa Claus.
Santa Claus has been a feature of Coca Cola advertising since 1931.
The Basel exhibition runs until January 8, 2006

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(Adapted from German by Kathleen Peters),

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