A brief history of Santa Claus

23 December 2020
How and when did this figure get immortalised?
History of Santa Claus article

Today, it would be hard to imagine a world without the jolly, plump man dressed in red and white adding festive cheer around the world. Would Christmas be Christmas without Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as he is also known? Probably not.

Despite becoming a permanent feature today, his origin story is peppered with a healthy mix of history, myth, religion, and creative license. Let us take a stroll far down memory lane to find out his story.

We start our journey through time around the year 280 AD when Nicholas was born in Patara, near Myra in what has become Turkey. He became a monk and his kindness became legend. According to the History website, "it is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and travelled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the best-known St Nicholas stories is the time he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married."

As his popularity increased, he became known as a children's protector. "His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. By the Renaissance, St Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe," reads the History website.

The scientific and educational website, National Geographic notes that for a few centuries, 1200 to 1500 St Nicholas remained the "unchallenged bringer of gifts".

"The strict saint took on some aspects of earlier European deities, like the Roman Saturn or the Norse Odin, who appeared as white-bearded men and had magical powers like flight," it reads. "He also ensured that kids toed the line by saying their prayers and practising good behaviour."

Forward on to 1773/4 and St Nicholas folklore entered the then new world, America. A newspaper in New York noted that Dutch families gathered to mark the saint's death.

When writers and artists stepped in by the 1820s, the current day image of Santa Claus was cemented. A poem, written by Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister for his three daughters was called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known as “'Twas The Night Before Christmas.”

A few lines of the poem reads:

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

Listen to the poem:

In 1881, a cartoonist Thomas Nast drew images depicting Moore's poem, published in Harpers Weekly.

He interpreted  "Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves and his wife, Mrs Claus," reads the History website.

And there you have it. Christmas and Santa Claus will always go together, the two are inseparable and our world is all the cheerier for it.

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Featured image: Pexels
Sources: History.com, National Geographic, and Poets.org