The Secret Cult of Santa Claus
Santa Claus is known throughout the world, but where did he come from? Santa has a rather diverse origin story that is unknown to most Christmas Carolers.
Who is Santa Claus?
Is Santa Claus a made up person? Yes and No. In the year 270 a man named Nikolaos was born. Nikolaos, who would later be referred to as St. Nicholas, became a bishop of Myra and helped lay out what Christian's now know as the New Testament of the Holy Bible. St. Nicholas was well known for secretly giving gifts, like leaving coins in children's shoes that were left outside at night. This is the reason Santa Claus is often referred to as Saint Nick. Nikolaos lived to be 75 and died on December 6th, 345 AD.
How did Santa get so popular?
Saint Nicholas established a gift giving holiday in Bari, Italy, called the Grandmother of Pasqua Epiphania. The Grandmother of Pasqua Epiphania was supposed to be a gift giving spirit that filled the children's stockings with gifts, which is where we get the tradition of hanging stockings on the fireplace. In 1087, sailors that idolized Saint Nicholas transported his skeleton from Turkey to Italy and made a shrine to him. This would later become a temple for the cult that followed Saint Nicholas. In remembrance of his death, each year on December 6th members of the cult would give each other presents. This laid the foundation for what Christians now refer to as Christmas.
In 2 years time the Nicholas cult spread north to Germany and Ireland. The religious groups in these regions worshiped a Pagan God named Woden. Woden was depicted as having a long white beard and was said to have ridden a horse through the skies on an August evening. This is what gave us the idea that Santa Claus traveled by air. The two, Nicholas and Woden, eventually merged to form a bearded man riding a horse on a solitary evening on December 6th each year.
How did he gain the name Santa Claus?
The Catholic Church, who formerly celebrated a Saturnial festival on the week of the 17th-25th of December, adopted the idea of Santa Claus in order to gain more Pagan followers to the Church, but suggested that St Nicholas rode through the skies on the 25th of December instead of December 6th and distributed gifts to all Catholics.
A Dutch novelist, Washington Irving, wrote "Knickerbocker History", a book that referred to St. Nicholas as Sinterklaas. Upon reading this book, a Union Seminary professor, Clement Moore, wrote a poem entitled "Twas the night before Christmas", including the character Sinterklaas, who he renamed Santa Claus. This is the earliest known documentation of Nicholas being referred to as a Saint. Moore painted a literary picture that depicted Santa Claus having a team of reindeer and climbing down chimneys to deliver gifts to children.
How did Santa get his Image?
A cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, Thomas Nast, published over 2,000 images of what he thought Santa should look like. Nast placed Santa's base at the north pole with an elf crew that built toys for the children of the world. He is also the man that made up the idea that Santa had a Naughty and Nice list. Nast's various images portrayed Santa dressed in a big frock, elfish like, with a long white beard and fat belly, however there was still one final piece missing about Santa's image - the trademark red suit.
In 1931 the Coca Cola company was looking to promote it's product to the rest of the world. So, they hired Swedish Illustrator, Haddon Sundblom. Their pitch to Sundblom was for him to create an image of Santa, garnished in Coca Cola Red and drinking a Coca Cola, thus giving us the historical coca cola-drinking Santa Clause image.
From Patron Saint to Pagan God to Coca Cola marketing strategy, Santa Claus traveled a long way to become the figure we recognize today.