Why Is He Laying His Finger Aside Of His Nose?

Mischievous gnome looking Victorian Santa touching his nose. Most of us are familiar with the Christmas line, "laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose". So went St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus, but what's with touching the nose? I recently found myself in possession of a mini gnome figurine holding a peculiar gesture that, really, looks as if he's about to pick a bogey! Wanting to know the meaning of touching the nose began to pick at my curiosity. This mysterious little gnome holds the distinct position of being about to touch his left forefinger to the side of his nose, a tap-of-the-nose-gesture quite a bit like the old tale tells of Santa in action. So what's with this nosy business; What does it mean to place a finger aside of the nose?
Shelf sitting gnome figurine gesturing a finger towards his nose.
 In body language and literature, throughout time nose touching seems to represent sniffing out the trouble of hidden things and/or smelling the truth of a situation, as in Santa Claus knowing if you've been bad or good... for goodness sake! Think of how many times any of us have sniffed a questionable gallon of milk or tested our trust in a loaf of bread; We can literally smell the truth of what's going on with these things. Nose touching also indicates that the person using the gesture is confident in the knowledge that is being shared or withheld.
In the poem, The Night Before Christmas, old St. Nick certainly acts with abundant confidence as he's slamming onto rooftops, flinging around a heavy sack as if it's nothing, and sliding into fireplaces with faith in a flame-free bottom only to nose his way back up the flue. That wasn't the only story to mention St. Nicholas having touched his nose before taking off. In his book, A History of New York, Washington Irving created a dream sequence for St. Nicholas to lay his finger on the side of his nose for the first time before leaving the scene in flight. Society later changed that character into the Santa Claus we know today. And oh what an aura of hidden things swirl around HIM; he isn't just an expert at magic, but he's all-knowing too! He knows your secrets. Then too, within the deeper consideration of mystical alchemy, all of this nasal knocking could be thought of as a physical gesture expressing the Latin concept phrase, "Physika Kai Mystika", which alludes to mystical hidden knowledge; Hey, my little gnome knows! More sinister than Santa, a similar meaning of touching the nose can be found within a common British gesture of tapping the side of the nose (usually twice) to indicate that something had BETTER remain a secret... or else! This warning sign is a more ominous version of someone placing a finger over the lips to say, shh... keep it to yourself!
Victorian child gesturing, shh!

 Among early European working-class folk, the gesture seems to have been used to play out a sort of not-it game where one member of a group notices first some menial task that needs to be done and must act quickly to avoid getting stuck with the job. He or she must announce notice of the task to the group and then call out the (now unknown) name of the game while swiftly placing an index finger on the tip of their own nose. As the other members of the group acknowledge the game they also place their index fingers on the tips of their noses. The last person to do this is the person who must then perform the dreaded job. In the more modern game of charades, when a player guesses a syllable of a word or portion of a total phrase the person who is in the know will gesture to the nose while pointing to the player making the guess to indicate correctness. Although the two games have different goals overall, both use touching the nose to indicate knowledge.

Leaving Santa somewhat behind, science has shown a link between the nose and truth; just as
Vintage drawing of Pinocchio with a big nose.
with Santa, Pinocchio too has secrets! Scientists at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago found that when a person tells a lie chemicals known as catecholamines are released, causing tissue inside the nose to swell; a Pinocchio syndrome of a sort. The increase of blood pressure inflates the nose, causing nerve endings in the nose to tingle, resulting in an urge to rub the nose with the hand to satisfy the 'itch' that fibbers often express through frequent rubbing or wiping of the nose. The same phenomenon occurs when a person is upset, anxious, or angry.

 Body language is undeniably the oldest form of communication, and still, today there exist examples of nose-touching being a signal for knowledge in action, secrets, and maybe even magic. My little gnome figure may sit quietly upon a window shelf, but it turns out that he has a lot to say! I learned more than I expected was possible by following my curiosity. So why DOES Santa Claus touch his nose before whisking away up the chimney? He's telling us that he knows how to do it, he knows many things, and the answers are his secret alone.

by Tree Pruitt, 2019

* Vintage postcard images from https://www.cardcow.com/ 
* Photograph of Gustav the Shelf Gnome, copyright Tree Pruitt.
* Pinnochio image public domain.



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