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A brief history of Santa Claus

The legend of Santa Claus can be recited by kids and adults throughout the world: A jolly, round, bearded man dressed in red and white flies around the world in a magical sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (nine on foggy nights) to deliver toys to all the well-behaved children. Who wouldn’t love such a story? While it may seem magical and completely made up, there is some factual basis to the lovable tale. Here’s a brief history of everyone’s favorite gift giver.

St. Nicholas

Saint Nicholas statue, near famous Christian Basilica of Saint Nicholas
Credit: arkanto/ iStock 

While Santa is called by many names, one of them has more of a basis in fact. Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop who lived around 280 CE. He was known as a generous man and earned a solid reputation throughout his life for giving to the needy.

One story involves a poor father who didn’t have enough money to provide a dowry for his three daughters. He had come under hard times and thought about selling them into servitude because he could no longer afford to feed and house them. Hearing about their predicament, St. Nicholas sneaked into their house on three separate occasions and put out bags of money so the daughters could get married.

He spent his life giving to the less fortunate. Upon his death on December 6, 343, he had earned a reputation as the protector of children and became known for his gift giving. Extraordinary stories of his generosity and miracles led to him being declared a saint by the Catholic Church. St. Nicholas became a prominent figure throughout Europe for centuries.

Protestant Reformation

Canal in Holland with houses lining the canal
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Around the 1500s, there was a large push away from the Catholic Church, widely known as the Protestant Reformation or simply The Reformation. During this time, the praise of saints became less practiced throughout much of Europe, and St. Nicholas had largely fallen out of the spotlight.

Although much of Europe stopped honoring saints, St. Nicholas and his legacy continued to be popular in Holland. They declared December 6 the feast day of Saint Nicholas. The children would leave their shoes out at night so that when St. Nicholas visited, he would have somewhere to leave gifts. The next day, the children would receive their presents, and there would be a feast in St. Nicholas’s honor.

St. Nicholas Day is still observed on December 6 in many central European countries.

Move to America

Stockings hanging from fireplace
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In the late 1700s, many Dutch immigrants moved to America, specifically New Amsterdam (aka New York City). When December 6 rolled around, the Dutch families celebrated their annual holiday and gathered some attention from the local newspapers who spread the ideas throughout the city. The name “Santa Claus” is an Americanized version of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas: Sinter Klauss.

St. Nicholas had gained popularity in America, but the legend started to lose much of its historical background. In 1804, a member of the New York Historical Society distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas depicting items that are now associated with Santa Claus like stockings filled with toys hanging above a fireplace. Popularity grew so much that in 1809, Washington Irving called St. Nicholas the patron saint of New York.

Modern Santa Claus

Santa Claus reading list with fireplace on and Christmas tree in background
Credit: stocknroll/ iStock

The legend of St. Nicholas continued to gain speed in America. In 1823, a poem entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was written by Clement C. Moore. Most people today know it as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” This poem is the inspiration for the legend of Santa Claus as we know it today. It mentioned his flying sleigh, the eight reindeer, and how he delivered presents by coming down the chimney.

Forty years later, Moore’s poem served as an inspiration for cartoonist Thomas Nast to draw Santa Claus for the popular magazine “Harper’s Weekly.” Nast’s version of Santa Claus showed him with a white beard, red suit, a round belly and carrying a sack full of toys. Sound familiar? In 1931, Coca-Cola used Nast’s character in a marketing campaign, further solidifying the modern image of Santa Claus and spreading it nationwide.

At the same time that the modern image of Santa Claus was being solidified by Nast, Arctic explorations had just begun. Not much was known about the area, so it was just as mythical as the Santa himself. Since St. Nicholas Day and Christmas were celebrated in winter, Santa had already been associated with cold and snow, so why couldn’t he be hiding in the unexplored arctic? The idea stuck, and Santa Claus found his forever home in the icy lands of the North Pole.

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