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The Man Behind the Beard

Updated on February 8, 2019

The History of Santa Claus

“You better watch out; you better not cry; you better not pout; I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town.” The lyrics to the popular Christmas carol, which debuted in 1934, depict the mysterious legend of Santa Claus. “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” Who was this bearded man with rosy cheeks dressed in red, who knew if one was naughty or nice? He was a third to fourth century bishop canonized as Saint Nicholas, who was born in Myra of present-day Turkey around 280 AD. Identified as Santa Claus for short, he was known to have given away his wealth to help the disenfranchised.[1] He died on December 6, 343 AD, which was a day celebrated in festivity ever after.[2] On the date of his death, December 6, it became customary during the Middle Ages to leave children gifts in their shoes on behalf of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas has since been deemed the spokesperson for the celebration of Christmas, a holiday observed by the majority of the world’s people.[3] But, how did this happen?

The story of Christmas began with the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God in Christianity.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which was called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.[4]

The initial idea behind the Christmas spirit was that God gave his son Jesus as a gift to the world so that man may be saved through him, and in turn the wise men from the east bestowed upon Jesus three symbolic gifts.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea; for thus it is written by the prophet. And though Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had pivily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and , lo, the star, which they say in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.[5]

From this story of nativity, the giving of gifts was the foundation of the spirit of Christmas. While it is unclear exactly when Jesus was born, December 25 was not necessarily the day that Jesus was born. In fact, centuries went by before the birth of Jesus was celebrated in festivity. In the third century, theologians spoke against the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Living inconspicuously among Roman Empire neighbors who celebrated several midwinter holidays, Christ believers began to correlate the birth of Jesus in December as a cultural accommodation.[6] By the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Based on pagan traditions, December 25 became the open celebration of the birth of Jesus and January 6 became the celebration of the wise men bearing gifts to Jesus.[7]

So, what does this have to do with Saint Nicholas? Saint Nicholas died in the fourth century, just as Christmas was becoming an official Roman holiday. He was known as a “wonder worker” for the miracles he performed on children, officials, sailors, soldiers, and starving townspeople.[8] He was particularly known for his power of “miraculous transport,” bring innocent slaves home, calming the waves of turbulent seas, and confronting the guilty of misdeeds. Among many of the legends that exist about Saint Nicholas, there are two that have historical continuity. The first legend was when he was a young monk, and learned of a father who found himself unable to provide the dowries for this three daughters. According to the legend, the father decided he would sell the daughters into prostitution and slavery to avoid having to pay dowries. Through three nights, Saint Nicholas threw gold into the father’s window and saved the daughters from a life of shame. However, Saint Nicholas begged the father not to tell anyone of his act of kindness. The second legend was when Saint Nicholas an elderly bishop, and stopped at an inn where the innkeeper had murdered three students. The innkeeper had pickled the students’ dismembered remains in a barrel, which he kept in his cellar. Detecting the innkeeper’s misdeed, Saint Nicholas made the students whole and brought them back to life. The innkeeper confessed and repented for his sins, and Saint Nicholas promised the innkeeper that his barren wife would soon give birth to a son.[9] It is no wonder that Saint Nicholas is known to give gifts, as well as know when one was naughty or nice.

Santa Claus has since evolved from the bishop he was in the third and fourth centuries, to the rosy cheeked man in the red suit. During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Saint Nicholas’ popularity began to decline; but, he remained a popular figure in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas, as he was known in the Netherlands, traveled from house to house on the eve of December 6, assisted by a team of elves, to leave gifts for children in their shoes. According to Dutch tradition Sinterklaas wore a red suit and traveled from rooftop to rooftop with his horses, entering the homes through the chimney. In exchange for the gifts, the children left treats for Sinterklaas’ horses. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Dutch brought Sinterklaas to America, where he became the result of a melting pot of traditions known as Santa Claus.[10] While many cultures throughout the world celebrate Santa Claus on December 6, the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25, and the coming of the wise men on January 6, Santa Claus became the official spokesperson of Christmas through popular culture.

[1] “Santa Claus,” The History Channel, (accessed December 18, 2013).

[2] Gerry Bowler, Santa Claus: A Biography (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2005), 14.

[3] Heather Whipps, “Santa Claus: The Real Man Behind the Myth,” LiveScience (published December 22, 2009).

[4] Luke 2:1-14.

[5] Matthew 2:1-11.

[6] Bowler, Santa Claus: A Biography, 5.

[7] Ibid, 7.

[8] Ibid, 14.

[9] Ibid, 15.

[10] Whipps, “Santa Claus: The Real Man Behind the Myth.”

© 2013 Marylin Prado


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    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      23 months ago from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado

      Fascinating study on this legendary figure.


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