St Nicholas becomes Santa Claus

One of the best – loved figures of the Christmas season is Santa Claus, but who is this jolly old fellow who represents Christmas to so many?

St Nicholas is just another name for Santa Claus or Father Christmas. But to most Europeans, St Nicholas is a tall, thin man dressed in bishop’s robes who arrives on a white horse on St Nicholas Day, December 6. The Santa many of us now know and love is an American creation, born in the 19th century . He is a combination of legends and history that go back many centuries.

In the fourth century, there lived a man named Nicholas, who was the bishop of Myra in Lycia. That ancient land is now part of Turkey.

According to the folk story Nicholas parents died when he was young and left him a great deal of money, instead of spending his money on himself, Nicholas gave his money away to the poor and needy, he was greatly loved by the people he served. He was fondly remembered after his death.

In time St Nicholas became one of the most popular of all saints. He was the patron saint of Russia and of sailors, students and children.

Little is known about the real St Nicholas but there are many legends and stories about his kindness his love for children and the miracles he brought about.

St Nicholas - The Gift Giver

Legend has it that Nicholas enjoyed giving gifts in secret. As he walked through the streets dressed in his official red cap and robe, he carried a bag filled with gifts. Any open window gave him the chance to slip a gift into a home without being discovered.

Another story tells of the three daughters of a poor man who were unable to marry. This was because their father could not afford dowries (money or property that brides bring to their husbands0 Father Nicholas secretly gave all three girls bags of gold so they could be married to respectable men.

The stories about St Nicholas’s secret gift giving inspired people from many other countries to do the same. The eve of the feast day of St. Nicholas became the day to enjoy this custom and to keep the St Nicholas became the day to enjoy this custom and to keep the St Nicholas legend alive.

Today , people in European countries leave shoes or stockings outside bedroom doors on December 5 in the hope that St Nicholas will secretly fill them with gifts. The feast day itself is observed on December 6 because St. Nicholas died on the day in AD 343. In those days, people celebrated an honored person’s date of death rather than his or her date of birth.

St Nicholas - Father Christmas - Pere Noel - Weihnachtsmann -Sinterklaas

Devotion to St Nicholas spread. But with the Protestant Reformation, a religious movement of the 1500s, it became improper for Protestants to celebrate anything having to do with Catholic saints or pagan rituals.

This movement gave birth to other Christians religions that split from the Catholic religion. Many protestants began to consider Christmas an inappropriate holiday because it included nonreligious customs and Catholic rituals such as those associated with St Nicholas. But St Nicholas was far too popular to be done away with.

A few countries solved the problem simply by changing Nicholas ‘s name. England turned him into Father Christmas.

  • Germany called him Weihnachtsmann.
  • France renamed him Pere Noel.
  • Germany also developed the Christkind, or Christ child, to become a gift giver. The Christkind tradition came with German immigrants to America. Where his name was mispronounced and ended up as Kris Kringle.
  • People in Holland left St Nicholas name the same but changed the meaning of it into nonreligious one. He became a jolly gift bringer like Father Christmas or Pere Noel. But was still called by his old name. When the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam, which later became New York, they brought St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) with them.

Since New Englands came from a Puritan beginning, saints and celebration were rare in the earlier years. It was not until after the American revolution (1775-1783 when the America colonies won their independence from England) that the Christmas customs of some of the immigrant groups began to spread.

Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore

1809 - The American writer Washington Irving described St Nicholas in 1809 as a chubby little man with a jolly smile, who was driven by a team of reindeer. His writing stirred up great interest in St. Nicholas.

Irving’s description of the jolly elf delighted Clement Moore of New York City. Moore later wrote a poem called "A Visit from Saint Nicholas"

1822 - The way we picture Santa (St Nicholas) today comes from Dr. Clement Clarke Moore’s poem which he wrote on December 24, 1822, for his six children. A family friend heard Dr Moore read the poem to his children and copied it down.

The next Christmas, that family friend sent it to a newspaper, where it was printed without the author’s name. All were delighted with St. Nicholas as Dr Moore saw him. This poem has become one of our best-loved Christmas traditions. People of all ages know the familiar words by heart “T’was the night before Christmas, when all through the house . . .”

St Nicholas in 1809 as a chubby little man with a jolly smile, who was driven by a team of reindeer
St Nicholas in 1809 as a chubby little man with a jolly smile, who was driven by a team of reindeer

Merry Old Santa Claus

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Thomas Nast's famous drawing of "the old jolly old elf" which gave us our modern idea of what Santa Claus looks like. Thomas Nast's illustrations for Harper Weekly - "Caught" was published in 1881.
Thomas Nast's famous drawing of "the old jolly old elf" which gave us our modern idea of what Santa Claus looks like.
Thomas Nast's famous drawing of "the old jolly old elf" which gave us our modern idea of what Santa Claus looks like.
Thomas Nast's illustrations for Harper Weekly - "Caught" was published in 1881.
Thomas Nast's illustrations for Harper Weekly - "Caught" was published in 1881.

1866 - Thomas Nast's Drawing of Santa Claus

Dr Moore’s poem was the inspiration for Thomas Nast, the man who drew a picture of Santa Claus 44 years later. By the 1860s the old Dutch Sinterklass was cheerfully mispronounced by Americans as “Santa Claus.

Thomas Nast drew Christmas cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. In a famous 1866 cartoon, Nast showed Santa in his workshop with a sleigh and reindeer, stockings hung by the fireplace and a Christmas tree nearby.

He drew Santa as the”right jolly old elf” described in Dr Moore’s poem. His drawings were done in pen and ink – in black and white.

Thomas Nast's whimsical 19th century illustrations for "Harper Weekly" shaped the image of Santa Claus in the American imagination.

Coca cola santa Claus created in 1931 by Haddon Sunblom, published in the Saturday Evening Post.
Coca cola santa Claus created in 1931 by Haddon Sunblom, published in the Saturday Evening Post.
Artist Haddon Sundblom painted  created the modern image of Santa.
Artist Haddon Sundblom painted created the modern image of Santa.

1920 - The Coca-Cola Santa Claus

It has been speculated for years that Santa as we know him originally appeared in Coca Cola advertisements in the 1930s. He was a distillation of Thomas Nast and Dr. Moore attired in black boots and red suit.

In the 1920s Santa Claus changed from black and white to color in ads for Coca Cola. He had grown from the elf-size of Dr Moore and Thomas Nast’s character to a fat human-size Santa with rosy cheeks, bright red suit, buckled belt and knee-high boots. Illustrator Haddon Sundblom was the man behind these illustration.

At this time people taught that Coca Cola is a drink for warmer season, but Coca Cola began an advertising campaign reminding the people that Coca Cola is the best drink for any season. In 1922 the Coca Cola slogan states "Thirst Knows No Season" with Santa Claus holding a a bottle of coke.

So this is the story of Santa Claus that today lives on the hearts and minds of people of all ages all over the world who believes in him.

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Comments 4 comments

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

I enjoyed this history lesson, MM. Merry Christmas!


lyricsingray 6 years ago

MM, this was really well written and really interesting, thank you, Kimberly


Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia

I recollect visiting his tomb in Turkey. The town was a bit surreal. Saw his bones in the museum too. He was real enough.


artrush73 profile image

artrush73 6 years ago

Great Hub, thanks for Sharing :)

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