Most historians would agree that The legend of Santa Claus was inspired by the life of a real man, St. Nicholas. Let’s take a look at the life of St. Nicholas, and the events that led from St. Nicholas’s life to the make believe world and life of Santa Claus:
•St. Nicholas is born.
•He was ordained Bishop at a very young age.
•He spent his life helping the poor and underprivileged.
•He loved children and often went out at night disguised in a hooded cloak, to leave necessary gifts of money, clothing or food at the windows of unfortunate families.
•He is known for helping many, using his wealth for others not for himself.
•St. Nicholas died on the 6th December.
•There was an elaborate Basilica built over his tomb, and dedicated to the saint.
•The Saxons brought the custom of giving human characteristics to the weather elements. They would dress up in pointed cap and cloak or cape, and draped with Ivy, to represent the Season.
•The Vikings brought with them their beliefs of deities and their main god Odin, who in the guise of his December character came to earth dressed in a hooded cloak, to sit and listen to his people and see if they are contented or not. He carried a bag of goods he distributed to the needy or worthy. He had long white hair and a long white beard.
•Methodius, the Bishop of Constantinople writes of the life and miracles of St. Nicholas.
•The custom of giving fruit and cookies to children on December 6th to celebrate the saint came around.
•Nicholas became Patron Saint of Russia
•His deeds were famous at this point, and many groups had adopted him as their saint, including: Sailors; Children; Spinsters; Pawnbrokers.
•As patron saint of sailors, his effigy was the figurehead of many ships, and thus he spread across the seas to Britain, (and later to the New World).
•Italian Merchants steal the bones of St. Nicholas and take them to Italy. This was unofficially approved by the Church, as at this time the Universal Church has split into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. The Roman Church felt that the bones of this most popular of saints should be in their safe keeping.
•Life of St. Nicholas was written by a Norman monk named Jean.
•Nuns in Belgium and France started a tradition of giving gifts to the children of the poor, and those in their care, on the Saints Feast Day, the 6th of December.
•The characteristics of Odin, and his white beard were superimposed over the saint, turning him from a short dark beareded man, to a white bearded man. At this same time the Germanic countries included the idea that he came down from the mountains dressed in furs and skins welcoming winter. And in Scandanavia they believed this same character would herd the reindeer down to lower pastures, as a sign winter was coming. Thus formulating the first ideas of the popular Santa icon we know today.
•More than 700 churches in Britain were dedicated to St. Nicholas and all over Europe, street parades were held led by a man dressed in Bishops robes and Mitred hat, riding a horse, on the feast of St. Nicholas, in the late middle ages.
•In Britain, the parishes would hire someone to dress in long hooded guise, and go to each home leaving a small gift and taking back any important news of the needy to the priests.
•A fleet of ships, led by the ‘GOEDE VROWE’ (Goodwife), which had a figurehead of St. Nicholas, left Holland for the New World (America). They purchased some land and called it ‘NEW AMSTERDAM’ (now New York), and erected a statue in the square to St. Nicholas. (an interesting side note, New York was purchased for $24.)
•Christmas was banned in England. The traditional mumming plays were visited by Father Christmas, who issued a taunting challenge to the government. “In comes I, Old Father Christmas, Be I welcome or be I not, I hope that Christmas will ne’er be forgot” And, from the 17th – 19th century it was the country mummers plays which kept Father Christmas alive in Britain.
•The State of Massachusettes, banned all observation of Christmas.
•New Amsterdam was won by the British, who named it New York. They tore down the St. Nicholas statue, but later accepted his festival.
•St. Nicholas first made the news in the New York Gazette which referred to him as otherwise known as St. A. Claus.
•American writer, Washington Irving, described St. Nicholas in his ‘History of New York’.
•The New York Historical Society held the first official St. Nicholas celebration, and along with this came the production of the first portrait of St. Nicholas in the USA, and a full description of his characteristics.
•A man and poet, Reverend Clement Moore, who knew much of European folklore made up a poem about Santa where he gathered together all the elements of European lore and more, and added them to the descriptions the Historical Society set. This became the framework of the Santa we know now.
•His poem was called ‘A visit from St. Nicholas ‘ or ‘The night before Christmas’.
•Thomas Nast did a political cartoon of Santa entitled ‘Santa in Camp’, for Harpers Weekly Journal.
•Thomas Nast continued to draw Santa Claus every year. During this same time Britain was importing illustrations and cards depicting Santa Claus from Germany. However, he was unlike the Santa of America. He was tall and athletic and stern, not jolly, short or fat.
•The English custom of a visit from Father Christmas was revived. He once again left gifts for children in their stockings. The image of Santa in Europe was varied.
•Santa Claus began to appear in Department stores in the USA and Canada as a marketing tool.
•Louis Prang of Boston published the first American Christmas Card. Showing Santa Claus much with a softer, gentler look that was more the saintly old gent than the jolly old elf.
•Father Christmas began to appear in English Stores.
•Norman Rockwell created a blend of saintly and jolly, with his Santa for the Saturday Evening Post.
•Coca Cola began their major promotion using Santa to promote their drink. Their artist, Haddon Sundblom created the image of Santa we think of today.
•Department Stores added train rides, sleigh rides, trip to the moon and elaborate animated scenes to their Santa to give him more life.
•English Father Christmas slowly gives way to American Santa Claus.
•Most of the old traditions of Santa the gift bringer gave way to the American version of the jolly old man.