He’ll be coming down your chimney in a matter of hours but, question is, who is he? Loretta Barnard uncovers the history of that interloper, Santa Claus.
One day, you’re Saint Nicholas, a Greek-born bishop; the next, you’re a jolly fat man in a red suit living in isolation somewhere in the Arctic Circle. How did this happen? Here’s a brief summary of the origins of Santa Claus.
Many sources suggest that Nicholas was born around 280 a.d. He became bishop in Myra in modern-day Turkey during the Roman period, and was a defender of the faith in the face of religious persecution directed at Christians. Nicholas was a very generous chap, giving away his money to the poor, helping those in need, and providing spiritual guidance to his flock.
The most well-known story about him is that he once secretly gave a poor father a small fortune so the man could save his daughters from a life of prostitution. Another story is that he brought three murdered boys back to life—that’s a gift if ever there was one.
These generous actions earned him the title of protector of, and giver of gifts to, children, and his memory was celebrated through Europe on December 6th, the date of his death sometime in the mid-fourth century.
After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Saint Nicholas was not well regarded by church hierarchies and lost his gift-giving capacity. The birth of Jesus on December 25th was instead celebrated and that was when gifts were to be exchanged.
But some societies kept the faith, so to speak. Plus, it was a big ask to expect a newborn baby to deliver presents, so the whole Jesus as gift-giver idea never really took off, although the date stuck.
Among those who retained the Saint Nicholas connection were the Dutch, who called him Sinterklaas. When the Dutch came to the American colonies in the early seventeenth century, they brought their Christmas traditions with them. But that’s a small part of the story.
It’s widely accepted that American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) essentially invented the Santa Claus we now know. His Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809) featured good old Saint Nicholas smoking a pipe and flying over the city in a wagon full of presents for children. Only good children, I might add, the naughty ones got a stick, although that was later upgraded to a piece of coal. (Sure didn’t pay to be naughty.)
Irving ascribed the origins of this gift-bearing supernatural being to Dutch settlers, who in fact received more credit than they deserved because, from the slimmest Dutch connection, Irving invented the rest. Saint Nicholas lost his religion and metamorphosed into secular Santa Claus.
Over time, other American writers embellished the story and the legend grew. Santa now wore heavy furs to keep out the winter chill, and had a reindeer to pull his wagon.
When Clement Moore’s poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas—better known as The Night Before Christmas—was published in 1823, well, it pretty much set in stone the image we have of this “jolly old elf.” Suddenly he had eight reindeer, all with romantic names like Dasher, Vixen, Comet, etc. (Please note: there was never a Rudolph!!!)
Stores began advertising Christmas shopping in the 1820s and, like any big marketing push, people got sucked right in, buying gifts, eating turkey, and what have you.
In 1881, cartoonist Thomas Nast created an illustration of an overweight, happy, white-bearded man wearing a red suit and carrying a sack full of goodies. Nast also gave him a workshop in the North Pole and a bunch of elves.
Apparently, the Santa suit was popularized in the 1890s by the Salvation Army. They ran soup kitchens in New York and, to help fund their meals to the homeless, they dressed unemployed men in red Santa outfits to collect donations.
Coca-Cola also famously popularized Santa in the 1930s, and we all know the market penetration that company has. No wonder Santa is known across the globe—whether Christmas is celebrated or not.
The American version of Santa was ultimately exported to Europe, which is kind of ironic considering that’s where Saint Nicholas came from in the first place. He’s known variously as Father Christmas, Père Noël, Kris Kringle and Saint Nick.
Whatever your beliefs, Christmas is a time for family and friends, so do old Saint Nicholas a favor and smile. Enjoy the festive season!