Toward the end of the 18th century, Saint Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture. It was around this time that the tradition of children leaving gifts in their shoes or stockings hung by the fire began. The name Santa Claus emerged from the Dutch word, Sinterklaas.
In 1823, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas, helped irretrievably wed Santa Claus to Christmas. Thomas Nast’s illustrations of him soon followed.
Saint Nicholas was a 4th century bishop from the city of Myra (modern-day Demre, Turkey). He is most famous for his generosity. One story tells of a poor family in Myra that could not afford dowries for their daughters so that they would be eligible to marry. Saint Nicholas secretly threw a bag of gold coins into the man’s house, and it dropped right into a stocking that had been hung up to dry! The girls were then able to marry, and the saint’s act of kindness was immortalized.
Saint Nicholas is a revered figure across many Catholic and Orthodox churches. He is the patron saint of children, sailors, and merchants. He is also a renowned miracle worker. He is known for following Jesus’ command to “sell what you have and give to the poor.” The story of Saint Nicholas and his giving has shaped Christmas in many ways.
When Europeans began immigrating to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought tales of Saint Nicholas and his Dutch nickname Sinterklaas with them. These stories blended with the existing legend of Santa Claus, and the jolly, generous Saint Nick we know and love today was born. It is this figure that carries on the tradition of giving gifts to children at Christmas time. His caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness.
The Origins of Santa Claus
The American hire Santa Claus we know and love was largely popularized by 19th century literary works such as Clement Clark Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and Washington Irving’s satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, along with many family Christmas traditions, children’s books, films, and advertising. He is a portly, jolly man who climbs down chimneys to leave gifts for good boys and girls on Christmas Eve, rides in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, and laughs in a way that sounds like “Ho ho ho!”
The Santa Claus myth originated with Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century bishop of Lycia (present day southwestern Turkey). The legend of his generosity spread after he anonymously gave dowries to three impoverished sisters in order to keep them from being forced into prostitution. He became a well-known figure in the Renaissance, becoming the patron saint of many diverse groups, including archers, children, and pawnbrokers.
In the 1800s, Saint Nicholas was popularized in America as the Christmas gift-giver and lost his bishop’s robes. He was depicted in various guises until 1863 when Harper’s Weekly hired 21-year-old Thomas Nast to draw the modern image of Santa Claus wearing a long coat, straight beard, and glasses. This cartoon was so popular that it quickly became the standard for the modern Santa Claus image, which has been perpetuated by countless books and other Christmas-themed materials, including television and films, songs, and commercials.
The idea of Santa flying around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer has roots in Norse mythology, specifically that of Odin. Odin, the father god, led his warriors on a Wild Hunt each winter. His followers would leave their boots filled with hay and carrots for his eight-legged horse, Sleipner, and in return they would receive gifts. Over time these ideas merged with those of St. Nicholas.
The fourth century bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra was renowned for his generosity, including anonymously throwing dowry money into the homes of impoverished sisters and having it land in their stockings, which they had hung up to dry. By the Renaissance he had become a popular figure, even though his veneration was discouraged by Protestant reformers.
By the nineteenth century New Yorkers embracing their Dutch heritage were already telling stories of St. Nick, whose Americanization became Santa Claus, flying from house to house on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by his reindeer. An illustrated poem published in 1821 called ‘Old Santeclaus with Much Delight’ was the first to describe Santa as using a sleigh to deliver presents.
Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ helped solidify Santa’s image as a portly, jolly man who laughed in a way that sounded like “ho ho ho.” The sleigh’s bells were also introduced as a means of communicating to the reindeer where he was going.
The gift-giving tradition at Christmas is one of the oldest in history, extending back thousands of years to Mesopotamian New Year’s festivals, Roman gift-giving during Saturnalia celebrations and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi to Jesus on his birthday. The modern Saint Nicholas myth rationalised these old pagan customs and merged them with Christian values of giving gifts anonymously to those who have not been particularly good or generous. Santa’s rotund figure, flying in a magical sleigh pulled by his beloved reindeer and leaving presents for all children around the world is reminiscent of the Magi.
In Europe, Saint Nick is known as Sinterklaas, Papa Noel or Weihnachtsmann, among other names. When Sinterklaas made his way to America via the Dutch, he morphed into the jolly Santa Claus we all know and love today. He is also known as Ded Moroz in Russia, a figure who predates him and shares many of the same characteristics as Santa.
Over the centuries, depictions of Santa have varied widely. In 1931, Coca-Cola launched a Christmas campaign featuring images of Santa Claus riding in a sleigh with his eight reindeer – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Donner and Blitzen – visiting homes, reading letters, enjoying a Coke, playing with the children and raiding their refrigerators. This is the Santa that we all grew up with, an image perpetuated in books, cards, magazines, films and commercials.