There's an old riddle that challenges children to draw a diagram of a house without lifting their pencil or repeating a line. The basic shape is composed of a square with diagonals running from corner to corner, topped with a triangular roof. In Germany, kids are taught to speak one syllable of the phrase, 'Das ist das Haus des Nikolaus,' for each line they draw. The game is known as 'The House of Santa Claus.'
This simple line drawing represents some of the architectural imagery that forms the setting of the Santa Claus myth. His home, village and workshop, have transformed through the centuries in step with the evolution of the man himself.
The historical St. Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in eastern Turkey during the third century. He spent his life helping the poor and sick, giving his money away anonymously to those in need. After his death he was made the patron saint of children and his life was traditionally celebrated on Dec. 6 with the giving of small gifts.
Through the centuries, local European folklore would alter the St. Nicholas story. In the Dark Ages, as the Vikings expanded their influence, he would take on many of the characteristics of Thor, the Norse God of Thunder. Thor was a heavy-set man with a white beard and red coat, who would hand out gifts at the winter solstice, flying above the trees from the North Pole in a chariot pulled by two goats (Cracker and Gnasher).
This Scandinavian influence on St. Nicholas would form the basis of the Santa Claus story and would be the first point of reference for his architectural traditions. Now living at the North Pole, his house was believed to be a traditional earth hut of northern Lapland. These circular homes were constructed of curving pine rafters that formed a dome shape, supported with sod and covered with reindeer skins (don't tell Rudolph). A hearth was placed at the centre of the room, vented through a smoke hole at the top of the structure. Village shaman would traditionally enter through these holes, thought to be the origin of Santa's ritual chimney descent. Children in Denmark and Greenland today believe that Santa Claus lives in one of these huts on the island of Uummannaq in western Greenland.
As the legend of St. Nicholas continued to evolve, his home became associated with traditional Scandinavian log structures that combined the artistic skill and woodworking techniques of Viking ship building. Known as stave construction, unpainted vertical pine logs were set within a post and beam frame that supported a high pitch, wood shingle, pagoda style roof. Gables, doorways and structural supports were decorated with ornate wood carvings similar to the prow of a Viking ship. This timber frame, alpine image has prevailed through the centuries as a common representation of Santa's home in popular culture. In Rovaniemi, Finland, a celebrated tourist trap known as Santa Claus Village recreates his arctic home in this traditional style. The American Christmas movie Elf, starring Will Ferrell used a similar aesthetic to represent the architecture of the North Pole.
As Viking influence faded, other European nations began to transform the St. Nicholas legend with their own customs. Most importantly the Dutch, who celebrated him as Sinterklaas, would bring the tradition to the new world settling in New York City, then known as New Amsterdam. It was here that the Santa Claus legend would explode.
Thomas Nast, a German-born, American political cartoonist would, in January 1863, publish the first illustrated image of Santa Claus in Harper's Weekly magazine. Over the next 15 years he would produce a series of drawings that would refine the modern persona of Old Saint Nick.
Drawing from his experience as a child in Bavaria, the architecture that surrounded Nast's images of Santa would be the traditional half-timber buildings of his native Germany. This construction style uses large oak timbers to create a structural frame that is filled with light coloured brick and plaster. The contrasting dark wood columns and angled bracing form a distinctive pattern that is expressed on the building's exterior. This construction method was widespread across northern Europe and has become the predominant architectural imagery related to Santa Claus, found in snow-globes, children's books and on Christmas decorations.
The 20th Century did see periodic diversions from this traditional imagery. In England, the characterization of Santa as a "right jolly old elf" in the poem, Twas The Night Before Christmas, has resulted in his home being represented at shopping malls and department stores as a grotto or magical cave, the mythical home of Scandinavian elves. Popular children's holiday cartoons such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, portrayed Santa living in a Romanesque style, Bavarian castle with towers, gables and ornamental turrets.
Modern interpretations have generally returned to the image of European half-timber buildings, but with the introduction of Santa's workshop, the architecture of the North Pole has taken on a grander scale. Modern Hollywood movies such as The Santa Claus, Fred Claus and Arthur Christmas describe Santa's home as a bustling European style, medieval village surrounding a monumental production and distribution facility, equipped with modern manufacturing technology, staffed by teams of tireless elves.
As the depiction of Santa Claus has evolved through the centuries, so, too, has the architecture that provides a context to his myth. Santa's timeless image will likely remain consistent in the future, but his architecture will continue to evolve.
Santa's environment has always been an integral part of his lore. It forms the backdrop, provides the setting to his narrative. The architecture of Santa Claus bridges the gap between wonder and reality, offering his story a sense of place and a destination for a child's imagination.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.