The History of Santa Claus: From Man of Faith to Christmas Symbol
For many people, Santa Claus is a beloved figure who represents the spirit of giving and the joy of the Christmas season. For others, he embodies the commercialization of a major Christian holiday. How did this plump, red-suited, white-bearded man become such an iconic (and sometimes divisive) symbol of Christmas, anyway?
The Origins of Santa: St. Nicholas
Santa Claus’s story begins with a real person named Saint Nicholas. He was a dedicated Christian and church leader who was born around 280 AD in Myra, a city in modern-day Turkey.
He probably didn’t wear a red suit, though he most likely had a beard. And he was famous for his acts of kindness and generosity to others. Although he had been born into a wealthy family, Nicholas was an orphan who cared greatly for the well-being of children.
Since he was a bishop in Myra, a busy port city, Nicholas would put gifts for the needy on ships that would sail all around the Mediterranean. Nicholas’ genuine faith and generosity laid the groundwork for future stories that grew up around Santa Claus.
Evolution in Europe: Sinterklaas and Father Christmas
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, people began to celebrate Saint Nicholas' Feast Day on December 6 to honor the legacy of Nicholas. The feast eventually grew into a major holiday.
In many European countries, Nicholas became known as Sinterklaas (a contraction of "Sint Nikolaas"), and the Dutch brought their Sinterklaas tradition to the New World. In England, the tale of Father Christmas—a cheerful, bearded figure who personifies the festive spirit—grew into a similar tradition.
The American Transformation: Santa Claus
In the 1800s, various European traditions, including Dutch and British, combined to form a distinctly American version of Santa Claus. This transformation was heavily influenced by American writers and artists.
In 1809, Washington Irving wrote a light-hearted fictional history of New York, including a story about a Dutch scouting party who shipwrecks on the island of Manhattan. In the tall tale, one of the scouts has a vision of St. Nicholas, who tells the Dutch to settle on the island. His later essays about Christmas (and his founding of the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York) helped Americans to embrace St. Nick as a beloved holiday figure.
In 1823, a popular newpaper anonymously published the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas"). Years later, Clement Clarke Moore was credited as its author. The poem introduced many familiar parts of the modern Santa Claus story, including his reindeer-driven sleigh, his round figure, and the idea of delivering gifts down chimneys.
Thomas Nast’s illustrations for Harper's Weekly in the 19th century also helped to shape the image of Santa as a jolly man with a white beard and a red suit. Decades later, Coca-Cola commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to create a series of holiday advertisements featuring Santa Claus enjoying a Coke. These iconic images from the 1930s built upon Nast’s idea of Santa as a jolly, rotund figure clothed in red and white.
The Global Icon
Today, Santa Claus is a globally recognized holiday figure. His image varies in some respects from country to country, with different names, traditions, and interpretations. In some cultures, he still goes by the name Saint Nicholas, while in others, he's known as Father Christmas, Ded Moroz, or Sinterklaas. Clearly, Santa has come a long way since the days of Saint Nicholas in Myra, Turkey. But no matter how we each feel about Santa Claus today, the selfless generosity and genuine faith of this Christian bishop is worth remembering as we celebrate the holiday season.
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