The History of Santa Claus

By JUSTINE HAARBERG

Drawing of Saint Nicholas. 

 

Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas…where did it all begin? The myth that is known as our bright red, toy-carrying jolly man traces all the way back to the 3rd century. Hundreds of years ago, Santa Claus was not the magic, sleigh riding hero we view him as today. Instead, the legend of Santa Claus can be followed back to a monk named St. Nicholas, born around 280 A.D., in Patara, or what is known today as Turkey.

Known for his kindness, Saint Nicholas was said to travel the countryside donating all of his inherited wealth to the poor and the suffering. Throughout the years, Saint Nicholas gained the reputation of the protector of children and carer for the needy. Many stories have been told under his name, leading him to be a beloved a respectable Saint. One of the most common stories tells about a poor man and his three daughters. Back then, a woman’s father needed to offer a dowry–property or money–to a man in an attempt to find a husband. The greater the dowry, the better the husband, however the poor man couldn’t afford a dowry for his daughters. Without this, they would have to be sold into slavery or prostitution. However, three bags of gold mysteriously appeared in their house. The story explains the bags of gold being thrown through the window and landing in stockings or shoes that had been left next to the fire to dry. Thus began the tradition of hanging up stockings on the fireplace. Children hung up their stockings in hope that they too, would get bags of gold.

Near the end of the 18th century, Saint Nicholas made his first appearance into American pop culture. Once in December 1773 and again a year later, a newspaper in New York reported the story of Dutch families that had come together to honor Saint Nicholas’s death. Soon after, the name Santa Claus emerged from Saint Nicholas’s Dutch name- Sinterklaas, which was short for Sinter Nikolaas. Thanks to John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, woodcuts of Saint Nicholas with stockings and toys in the background were handed out at the society’s annual meeting, popularizing this character. By 1809, Sinterklaas had been described as a “rascal” with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings. He had also been described as a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose, the full, baglike breeches covering the body from the waist to the middle of the thigh or lower.

 

By the 1840s, stores had began to advertise Christmas shopping and newspapers started making separate sections for the holidays. According to History.com, “In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model” and  “it was only a matter of time before stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a “live Santa Claus.” Soon, the volunteers for the Salvation Army started dressing up as Santa Claus to attract more donations, and not long after, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” became popular and introduced the idea of Santa traveling on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. In 1939, Robert L. May wrote about Santa’s ninth reindeer, Rudolph. Today, Santa Claus and his eight reindeer plus his leader with the red, glowing nose have become one of the world’s most popular legends. Dating back to the 3rd century, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus have both brought lots of happiness to people all around the world. Will Santa evolve again?

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