History of Santa Claus

Read about how Santa Claus has delivered Christmas memories and been a beacon and protector to those in need through the centuries.

The name of Santa Claus has its roots in the informal Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas (an abbreviation of Sint Nikolaas). St. Nicholas was a historic 4th-century Greek saint (from an area now in modern day Turkey) who had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting gold coins in the shoes left out for him. He was also famous for presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to be sold into slavery. Being the patron saint of children St. Nicholas has long been associated with giving gifts to children.

In his Dutch form of Sinterklaas he was imagined to carry a staff, ride above the rooftops (on a huge white horse) and have helpers who listened at chimneys to find out if children were being good. These features all also link him to the legend of Odin, a god who was worshipped among the Germanic peoples in North and Western Europe prior to Christianization. .Although in Europe the feast of St. Nicholas, typically on the 6th of December, was very popular throughout the middle ages, after the reformation in the 16th century the celebration died out in most Protestant countries, apart from Holland where the celebration of Sinterklaas lived on. 

Another important tributary to the image of Santa Claus was the phenomenon of Father Christmas – also known as Old Father Christmas, Sir Christmas, and Lord Christmas – a traditional figure in English folklore and identified with the similarly bearded Old English god Woden. He typically represented the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, but was not associated with either children of the bringing of gifts. The earliest English examples of the personification of Christmas are thought to be from a 15th century carol which refers to a “Sire Christmas”.

 Although the East Coast of America was full of Dutch settlers, it was not until the early 19th century that the figure of “Sinterklaas” would make his way properly across the Atlantic and give birth to the Americanised name of Santa Claus.Following the Revolutionary War the already heavily Dutch influenced New York City (formerly of course named New Amsterdam) saw a new surge of interest in Dutch customs, and with them St. Nicholas. 

As time went by, more and more was added to the legend of Santa Claus. The cartoonist Thomas Nast established the bounds for Santa Claus’ current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled “A Christmas Furlough”.  In later Nast drawings Santa's home at the North Pole was added, as was the workshop and his large book filled with the names of children who had been naughty or nice.

A poem, written in 1822 became the definitive story of Santa Claus and his Christmas Eve Mission. Attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, the poem has had a massive influence on people's ideas about Christmas, gift giving and of course Santa Claus himself. The poem was written on a snowy winter day during a shopping trip for Christmas gifts. Inspired by the winter wonderland and the sounds and sights of Christmas, the poem came to mind and was put to paper and since then, children and adults gaze at the sky on Christmas Eve listening for sleigh bells and the jolly voice of the Christmas visitor.   

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