The History of Santa Claus

The History of Santa Claus

He is known by many names: Santa Claus; St. Nicholas; Saint Nick; Father Christmas; Santa; or Kris Kringle. And he comes in many guises: a fur trimmed red suit; long flowing robes; an early Bishop’s costume; adorned with sprigs of holly, mistletoe and ivy; dressed in red, green, blue and even black. Even the date of his arrival varies: Christmas Eve, December 5 (the feast day of St. Nicholas); or at the end of Advent.

The story, however, is always the same: that of a kindly old man who delivers toys to children.

The modern Santa Claus appears to be a merger of three different traditions.

The first is that of St. Nicholas of Myra, who is variously identified as either a third or fourth century bishop from Anatolia, in modern day Turkey. Nicholas was known for his piety and kindnesss, and for giving away his inherited wealth.

In one story, Nicholas give dowries to three sisters so that they could be married and spared from a life of prostitution. For two of the sisters, he threw bags of gold into their windows. But when he found that the third sister’s window was locked, he tossed the bag down the chimney, where it landed in a stocking she had set by the fire for drying.

Nicholas also is credited with walking on water to save the life of a drowning sailor. Schoolchildren also benefited from his largesse, as he give them gifts for studying their catechism.

After his death, Nicholas became known as a protector of children and sailors. His feast day is December 6, marking the traditional day of his death (Dec. 6, 326) Thus, in some traditions, St. Nicholas arrives to bring presents to children on the night of December 5.

St. Nicholas’ Day also is traditionally considered a lucky day to get married, or to make large purchases.

Amsterdam, historically one of the world’s great port cities, recognizes St. Nicholas as its patron saint. This explains the Dutch origins of many of the Santa Claus legends.

The feast of St. Nicholas largely disappeared from Northern Europe during the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther had made the abolishment of the veneration of the saints one of the cornerstones of his efforts. But the idea of distributing presents was too strong to be completely overcome.

In Germany, the Christ Child replaced St. Nicholas as the distributor of gifts. In other protestant countries, he was replaced by Kris Kringle or Father Christmas.

The Protestant Dutch, however, continued to celebrate St. Nicholas. On December 6, a man dressed in the Bishop’s red and white robes would distribute gifts as he paraded through the streets.

In another Dutch tradition, children would put their wooden shoes by the hearth; St. Nicholas would magically fill them with toys.

Wierdly, Sinterklass (short for Sinter Nikolaas, the Dutch word for St. Nicholas) is said to come from Spain. He is acompanied by Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters), who are Africans dressed in Moorish clothing.

The only explanation for Spanish origins I can think of is that the Netherlands once were ruled from afar by Spain.

St. Nicholas came to North America as the Dutch settled New York. Along with many other dutch words Sinterklass came into the American lexicon. Sinterklass was short for Sinter Nikolaas, but soon became anglicized as Santa Claus.

He was a popular figure in New York. In 1804, Saint Nicholas was adopted as the patron saint of the New York Historical Society.

In 1809, Washington Irving, who wrote so brilliantly of colonial Dutch life (note that all of the characters in the famous Rip Van Winkle and Legend of Sleep Hollow are Dutch), write a story about Saint Nicholas’ magical visits to Dutch houses in New York. Irving’s St. Nicholas was a tiny elf — small enough to fit in the chimneys. He amended the story in 1812, adding the details of Nicholas’ flight over the treetops in a wagon.

Pagan Germanic, Finnish and Norse traditions also have contributed to the Santa Claus legend.

In Finland, Old Man Winter is said to arrive on a sleigh driven by reindeer. Siberian legends tell of a shaman who enters the yurts to bring presents of mushrooms. The mushrooms are hung by the fire to dry.The species of mushroom in question apparently are the objects of affection of reindeer, for whom it has an intoxicating effect.

According to Norse folklore, each year at Yule (midwinter), the God Odin (also known as Wodan, or Wotan) would hold a hunting party which included the other Gods, and fallen warriors in Valhalla. On that night, children would place food for Ordin’s steed, Sleipnir, by the hearth. Odin, in return for their kindness, would leave behind treats for the children.

Interestingly, Sleipnir, had eight legs – the same as the traditional number of reindeer in the Santa claus stories.

The eight tiny reindeer are the central image in the famous 1822 poem “The Night Before Christmas.” Generally attributed to Clement Clark Moore (although others credit Major Henry Livingston), the poem features an elf-like Santa who delivers presents in a reindeer driven sled.

Santa was changed from an elf to a jolly bearded fat man in a red suit by cartoonist Thomas Nast. Nast was a genius at creating iconic images. After a hundred years, his symbols for the Democrats and Republicans — the donkey and the elephant — have burned their way into our national consciousness.

Nast’s drawings may have been inspired by a character from German folklore called Furry Nicholas.

Nast’s drawings of Santa were published annually in Harper’s Magazine. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asked Nast to draw images of Santa visiting the Union soldiers, in an attempt to demoralize the Confederates.

Still, Nast’s depiction was far from universal. For other artists, Santa still was protrayed as an elf, in bishop’s clothing, and in colors other than red. Even Nast occasionally varied his theme.


Nast also is credited with establishing Santa Claus as a maker of toys in his 1866 drawing “Santa Claus and His Works” In 1869, Nast illustrated a book by George P. Webster that located Santa at the North Pole.


Prior to the industrialization of the 20th Century, Santa was shown making his toys by hand in a small workshop. However, as the age of the assembly line arrived, he was increasingly shown supervising a small army of elves who worked to produce toys in factory like facilities at the North Pole.


The recent book and movie The Polar Express seize upon this imagery, portraying the North Pole as a vast complex of brick industrial buildings, with early 20th century machinery, smokestacks and railroad lines going in and out.


The modern image of Santa may have been standardized by illustrator Haddon Dundblom, who created a series of drawings for the Coca-Cola company beginning in the 1930s. In these advertisements, Santa is wearing the familiar red suit, trimmed in white fur. He has a full white beard, rosy cheeks, and is definitely not an elf.


The Coca Cola series of ads continue to this day.


But Coke was not the first to use Santa Claus as a marketing gimmick. As early as the 1820s, stores in the US were holding “Christmas Sales,” and as Santa became increasingly popular, he became part of the advertising.


Santa may have made his first appearance in a store in 1841, when a Philadelphia merchant hired a man to dress in a Santa suit and climb the store’s chimney. Today, he appears in malls and stores at thousands of locations around the country, most notably at Macy’s in New York, where he arrives with the Thanksgiving Day Parade.


Still, it is the Coke image that sticks with many people. And because of the overwhelming marketing of the Coca Cola company, many assume that the company invented the modern image. If anything, that credit must go to Thomas Nast.

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