Santa Claus is one of the most popular mythical figures in history. No surprise, during the Christmas season, his face is typically everywhere. You could even say he’s the mascot of Christmas.
History shows us that Santa Claus was not always existent; there was a time when there was no Santa. So, if you are as curious as I am, you may be wondering how Santa Claus came to be. Well, we’ve compiled an article to satisfy your curiosity.
Find out more about Santa Claus – his origins, evolution, the influence of the Dutch, and much more – below.
Who Was Saint Nicholas?
Back in the 3rd – 4th century, there was a monk named Saint Nicholas. He was born around 280 AD in Patara, a place that is now part of modern-day Turkey.
Saint Nicholas is the basis for Santa Claus. You could say he is the origin of Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas was a saint in many ways; his penchant for love, generosity, and devotion is pretty much the primary theme of his story. It is also the reason for the reverence he earned.
St. Nicholas was born into a wealthy Christian family. His parents were not blessed with a child very early. So, they prayed for a while before they had him. Naturally, when the saint was finally born, his parents ensured his devotion to God.
As expected, being an only child – one they’d be longing for – he was raised with a lot of love and attention. Unfortunately, Nicholas lost both parents quite early as they died when a plague ran through their city.
Of course, being the only child, Nicholas was the sole heir to their wealth. But, in a show of the virtue he’s known for, he spent most of his wealth on charity.
One would expect that the loss of Nicholas’ parents would drive him into despair. But it didn’t. Instead, the loss of his parents improved his devotion to God. So, the way he opted to use his inherited wealth was not too surprising.
Nicholas’ character was undeniably worthy, so much so that he became an archbishop right in his 20s. But while he was archbishop, Christians were persecuted. Unsurprisingly, he was imprisoned during this period.
The persecution persisted for many years. But when they finally had the first Christian emperor, things became better.
Afterward, there were doctrinal disputes among Christians. So, the emperor summoned a meeting with various bishops to find a solution to said disputes – St. Nicholas was one of them.
The Famed Story of St. Nicholas’ Generosity
Besides his contribution to resolving doctrinal issues, there are many prominent stories about Nicholas. One of the popular ones involved him saving three daughters of a poor man from a potentially cruel fate. This story birthed the custom of hanging stockings with gifts inside them.
The tale reveals that the said poor man was unable to pay a dowry for his three daughters (this was the custom then, and it’s still customary in parts of the world). So, he may have considered selling them into slavery or prostitution.
St. Nicholas got wind of this and helped. His way of helping was to drop a bag of gold down the poor man’s chimney. The first time he did this, the bag of gold dropped into a piece of stocking hung around the chimney fire to dry. This is why we hang Christmas stockings around fireplaces today.
St. Nicholas repeated the gold-dropping act a second and a third time. But the third time, curious to know his benefactor, the poor man hid by the fire. Surely enough, he found out it was St. Nicholas, but the saint pleaded for secrecy.
So, how did dropping gold help the sisters? Well, it was said that each time Nicholas dropped gold down the chimney, one of the sisters was able to get married.
Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus/Father Christmas
St. Nicholas died on December 6, and to pay tribute to him, people started a gift-giving tradition on the anniversary of his death. To this day, many still celebrate the man on December 6 – St. Nicholas Day (also known as the Feast of Saint Nicholas).
The Feast of St. Nicholas came to America towards the end of the 18th century. A group of Dutch was reported to have celebrated the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death for two consecutive years. That was where it all began.
Besides the Dutch gatherings in New York, wooden memorabilia created by John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, contributed to St. Nicholas’ popularity in the early days. The said woodcuts featured Santa Claus’ images and engravings.
Then a book (The History of New York) written by Washington Irving talked about St. Nicholas, dubbing him the patron saint of New York. This also contributed to the popularity of the saint.
The name Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch nickname – Sinter Klaas. Sinter Klaas, in turn, comes from the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas – Sint Nikolaas.
As America started growing into Saint’s Day, the celebration eventually fused with the Christmas holiday. The traditions of Saint’s Day were, in nature, fitting of Christmas. So, the eventual merger was natural. But then, there were objections; people were wary of how St. Nicholas’ memorial could draw attention away from Jesus.
Traditions of St. Nicholas Day
At the start, the Feast of Saint Nicholas focused primarily on giving gifts. But with time, it evolved. For one, the concept of “naughty or nice” started later on.
While the nice or good kids were bound to get gifts in their boots from St. Nicholas, the naughty children had to fear him. Of course, the naughty part of the whole concept was to serve as a deterrent to children.
Across Europe, the naughty-nice concept took different forms. In Switzerland, for instance, the fabled penalty for being naughty was that the saint would take the naughty kids away in his sack to the Black Forest.
In Austria, whoever played St. Nicholas would visit the naughty kids’ home and threaten to whoop them, while in Germany, St. Nicholas had an assistant named Knecht Ruprecht. One of the assistant’s roles was to threaten to eat the naughty kids.
The Netherlands also had a special way of handling naughty kids on Saint’s Day. Over there, St. Nicholas’ helper would threaten to tie the kids, put them in a sack, and take them to Spain.
Dutch folklore had a peculiar tale about Santa Claus. The narrative was that Santa rode on a horse instead of a reindeer. They also narrated that Santa Claus came with an assistant named Black Pete. While some think Black Pete has racist undertones, others believe the soot in chimneys left the assistant all dark. Hence, the name.
In the course of its evolution, the feast day drove even wider acceptance for the saint. He became accepted across European countries as the patron saint of various cities, children, traders, and pawnbrokers.
At some point, the modifications to the original St. Nick’s Day were rejected by reformers on the basis of being mythical. Then in places like Germany, the saint’s feast day was replaced with Christkindl.
In the end, many of the Christmas traditions that persisted till today are thanks to the Dutch. While many conservatives had abstained or even banned the celebration, the Dutch kept on with it.
Santa Claus Around the World
During the early days of Saint’s Day, the gift giver went by various names. In the USA, he was called Kris Kringle, meaning Christ Child. In the United Kingdom, especially England, he went by St. Christmas, Old Man Christmas, or Father Christmas. Similarly, in France, he was known as Pére Noel (meaning Father Christmas).
In parts of Europe like Germany and Austria, the gift giver was called Christkind or Christkindl. Unlike in other places, the imagery of Christkindl was that of a baby with golden wings – a representation of baby Jesus Christ.
As time passed, Santa Claus eventually became the primary name. Of course, Kris Kringle and the other names are still used as synonyms today.
The Depiction of St. Nicholas and the American Santa Claus (Twas the Night Before Christmas)
Earlier depictions of the patron saint described him as a slender, bearded man. While the modern Santa Claus is bearded, he surely is not slender. So, how did the depiction of St. Nicholas evolve to being the jolly fat man?
Well, it all began with Dr. Clement Clarke Moore’s poem from 1823. The poem titled An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas (more popularly known as Twas The Night Before Christmas) described Santa as chubby and plump, and that was it.
While Dr. Moore’s poem may not have been the first time Santa got that description, it surely was the one that popularized it. Besides depicting Santa’s body, the poem introduces the idea that Santa goes from house to house in a miniature sleigh steered by eight reindeer. The poem was also the first mention of the names of Santa’s reindeer.
Building on Moore’s poem, a cartoonist, Thomas Nast created the earliest visuals of modern-day Santa in the late 1800s. Thomas Nast portrayed Santa with a red suit lined with white fur. But then, it is said that the red suit is similar to St. Nicholas’ bishop garment.
The Coca-Cola Company and Santa Claus
Tales that the modern Santa Claus imagery were inspired by Coca-Cola ads are not quite true. While the brand definitely contributed to the popularity of Father Christmas, his image came from earlier works.
For one, the poem by Dr. Clement Clarke Moore inspired his rotund body. Then the cartoons of Thomas Nast gave us the earliest visual depiction of the patron of Christmas, which surely popularized Santa’s modern portrayal.
St. Nicholas was depicted as bearded, so the white beard pretty much came from that. Then the red garment is also a St. Nicholas thing.
Of course, the saint was shown in various other clothing colors with white trimmings during the Victorian era – green, brown, and blue. But red was the popular one.
Contemporary Santa Customs
It is generally accepted that Santa flies through the night of Christmas Eve in a sleigh steered by reindeer. The part where he places Christmas gifts under Christmas trees, in stockings, or by the fireplace is also widely accepted.
But then, some of the contemporary customs differ from place to place. Some of them are:
While many people say Santa lives at the North Pole, the Finnish tradition says he lives in Lapland, Finland.
In many places, children find their Christmas present underneath their Christmas tree on the night of Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning.
Interestingly, some kids get their gifts earlier than Christmas Eve. As early as the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day, these other set of kids gets their presents.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
While Rudolph wasn’t part of the original eight reindeer, it has gained prominence as the most popular.
The first introduction of Rudolph came in 1939 – more than a century after the first eight were introduced. In a book written by Robert May, Rudolph was described as a red-nosed reindeer who got a lot of sticks for its unique anatomy. But eventually, that uniqueness sprung it into herohood as it helped Santa save Christmas on a foggy Christmas Eve.
Other reindeer have been named besides Rudolph and the original eight. But those names may not be as mainstream.
Mall and Department Store Santa
So, when did the tradition of having Santa Claus in malls and department stores start? Well, in the early 1800s, stores realized the pull Christmas had on children (and their parents). So, they started advertising Christmas shopping.
With time, some shopping malls started having mall Santas, and these attracted children too. It wasn’t long before they started considering the idea of having real-life Santas over. Then in the 1840s, James Wood Parkinson – a store in Philadelphia, claimed they had the first store Santa visited.
Another store, Macy’s store in New York, also claimed they had the first store Santa visited in the early 1860s.
From the later 1800s to the early 1900s, the Mall Santa tradition gained traction in the US and worldwide. Eventually, it became a part of the Christmas culture.
Some Fun Facts About Santa Claus
- Santa’s reindeer might be female since female reindeer typically keep their antlers through winter while the males rarely do.
- The largest Christmas stocking was approximately 71 ft. wide and 169 ft. long. It was created in 2011 by an emergency services organization in Italy.
- One of Santa’s illustrations by Thomas Nast initiated the tradition of kids sending letters to Santa.
- Santa Claus was not always married to Mrs. Claus. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s when a short story by James Rees (A Christmas Legend) mentioned Mrs. Claus.
- Santa gets more letters from France than anywhere else.
- Santa lives at the North Pole because reindeer tend to live in cold places.
- The greeting “Merry Christmas” did not originate from St. Nicholas. Instead, it dates back to the 16th century, long after St. Nicholas had passed.