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Santa History: How Saint Nicholas Became Santa Claus

Updated on August 30, 2013

Civil War Santa (1863)

Thomas Nast's first published cartoon of Santa appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1863.
Thomas Nast's first published cartoon of Santa appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1863.

Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klaas and Santa Claus

The Historical Saint Nicholas
The history of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a fourth century Christian bishop known for his generosity. Saint Nicholas was born around 270 or 280 AD in what is now modern-day Turkey. His parents died when he was young, and legend says that he gave away all his inherited wealth and went around helping the needy.

In one of the most well-known legends, Saint Nicholas is said to have thrown three bags of gold coins down the chimney of a poor man who couldn't afford the dowry for his three daughters. Without the dowry, they would remain unmarried and unemployed, and would probably be forced into a life of prostitution.

In another version of the story, the bags of coins fell into stockings the girls had placed by the fire to dry. This is the basis for the modern tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace, and also the tradition of leaving oranges in the toe of Christmas stockings. (The oranges represent the bags of gold.)

Image from "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (1862)

Illustrator: F. O. C. Darley
Illustrator: F. O. C. Darley

Thomas Nast's Santa Claus (1881)

This image appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1881.
This image appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1881.

Saint Nicholas Comes to America

The legend of Saint Nicholas was brought to America by Dutch settlers, who can also claim credit for later use of the name Santa Claus, which evolved from Sinter Klaas, a Dutch nickname for Sint Nikolaas.

Saint Nicholas's legend continued to spread when he was chosen as the patron saint of the New York Historical Society and New York City in 1804. A few years later, Irving Washington published a history of New York that also included many references to a jolly Saint Nicholas.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas
It was Clement C. Moore, however, who really popularized the legend of the saint and many of the traits we now associate with Santa Claus, including his appearance, his method of transportation and the names of his reindeer.

He originally wrote the poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," (now more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas") for his family, but it became quite popular after it was published anonymously in 1823.

Modern Santa

Santa with Child. Photographer: Jacob Windham
Santa with Child. Photographer: Jacob Windham

Thomas Nast's Santa

Political cartoonist Thomas Nast helped ingrain Moore's vision of Santa into the public mind. In 1863, he began drawing a series of annual cartoons for "Harper's Weekly" that depicted Santa as bearded and fat, as Moore had described. Previous images of Santa had always shown tall, thin men. Nast's first cartoon was published on the cover of the magazine in 1863 and showed Santa handing out gifts to Civil War soldiers. In the picture, he is sitting on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Later, Nash would also invent Mrs. Claus, the North Pole and elves.

After that, images of Santa continued to show him as a jolly, rotund fellow, and he became more popular than ever. Today images of Santa can be found on everything from Christmas cards to toys and gifts.

Lill's Travels in Santa Claus Land (1878)

Illustrator unknown
Illustrator unknown

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