Santa Claus is a face and a name we know today, but where did he come from? The fact is the modern Santa came from a long line of other Santas. So, let’s take a look at the legend of Santa Claus.
The legend of Santa Claus started with a monk named St. Nicholas, who was believed to have been born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey.
This monk is said to have inherited a great deal of wealth. However, rather than keep it for himself he gave it away and traveled the countryside helping the poor, the sick, and the needy. He provided dowries for poor girls so they would not have to be sold into prostitution; he gave toys to small children, etc. Through his many good deeds he became well known. Many celebrated him on his St. day, which was December 6th.
By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas’s image was even bigger, and still very positive despite the fact that after the Protestant Reformation saints were being discouraged. The idea of a St. Nicholas, and his good deeds was well known in Europe, and his story was told to children.
At the end of the 18th century, the story of St. Nicholas entered America. It is said that in December 1773, and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.
Of course at this time he was still far from the Santa Claus we know today. However, it was about this time that the name change began to take place. The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). Santa Claus was easier to say for the Americans.
At this time many cultures celebrated the life of this caring monk by giving small gifts to children. However, in 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. This is where many of today’s ideas of what Santa Claus looks like, and how Christmas should be came about. The background of the woodcuts contained stockings with toys, a fireplace, etc.
However, Santa Claus had not yet taken root in America. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York.
Even after his reference however, there was still a lot of variation as to what Santa Claus was, and what he looked like. In fact, he was described as everything from a “rascal” with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings to a man wearing Flemish pants.
Santa Claus as a gift giver has been around since the early 19th century. However, it was not until about 1820 that people began to commercialize on this image. At this time stores began to advertise Christmas shopping which featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus.
However, the images still varied, but in 1822 Clement Clark Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem that is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa. In his poem titled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” he talks about the sleigh, the chimney climbing, Christmas Eve, Santa being jolly, an elf, and portly. It was this poem, which many of us our familiar with that led to the popular American icon version of Santa Claus. And when in 1881 Thomas Nast drew a Santa to match the popular poem, it was cemented in as the image of St. Nick, Sinter Klaas, Santa Claus, or whatever name you wish to call this jolly, gift giving, saint.
While Santa Claus become the 18th-century American name, similar St. Nicholas inspired gift givers were popular all over the world. Christkind or Kris Kringle was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. The name was derived from the heavenly angel that accompanied St. Nicholas on his missions. In Scandinavia, a jolly elf named Jultomten was thought to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. English legend explains that Father Christmas visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill children’s stockings with holiday treats. Pere Noel is responsible for filling the shoes of French children. Each country seems to have their own version of a gift giving being who travels the world and fills children’s shoes, stockings, or something else with gifts and treats. So how did Santa Claus evolve? He started with the kind actions of one man, and evolved through stories, poems, legends, and drawings over hundreds of years.