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Santa History: From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus

Updated on December 26, 2013

Learn About Santa History

Santa Claus is now a very familiar figure during the holidays, but the roly-poly, bearded man in a red suit we know today evolved over many years. The legend of Santa can be traced all the way back to a Christian bishop, Saint Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century. Learn more about Santa history and how the generosity of Saint Nicholas still inspires the legend of Santa Claus today.

(Photo credit: Jacob Windham on Wikimedia Commons)

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.)

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 Sinterklaas, 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.

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 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, and his spirit lives on in kids Santa letters, books and family traditions.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

Without Clement Clarke Moore, our image of Santa today might be very different from the man with the "beard on his chin ... as white as the snow" and a "broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly." This is a classic tale no home should be without.

Sinterklaas Doesn't Always Come on Christmas

Saint Nicholas's Eve is still the day for gift giving in some countries

The modern American Santa Claus evolved from legends of Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas, but in other parts of the world, Christmas is not the big day for gift giving and Sinterklaas comes much earlier. According to Wikipedia, "In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas' Eve (December 5) is the primary occasion for gift-giving, when his reputed birthday is celebrated. In this case, roles are reversed, though, in that Sinterklaas is the one who gives the presents.

In the days leading up to December 5 (starting when Saint Nicholas has arrived in the Netherlands by steamboat in late November), young children put their shoes in front of the chimneys and sing special 'Sinterklaas-songs'. Often the shoe is filled with a carrot or some hay for the horse of St. Nicholas ( who in recent years has been named Amerigo). On the next morning they will find a small present in their shoe, ranging from a bag of chocolate coins to a bag of marbles or some other small toy. On the evening of December 5, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child that has been good in the past year (in practice to all children). This is often done by placing a sack with presents outside the house or living room, after which a neighbour or parent bangs the door or window, pretending to be Sinterklaas' assistant. Another option is to hire or ask someone to dress up as Sinterklaas and deliver the presents personally. Sinterklaas wears a bishop's robes including a red cape and mitre, rides a white horse over the rooftops and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dress, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' (Black Petes)."

(Image of Sinterklaas by Micheal Zappa on Wikimedia Commons)

While Santa can trace his roots back hundreds of years to Saint Nicholas, Mrs. Claus has a much shorter history. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about her evolution:

The wife of Santa Claus is first mentioned in the short story "A Christmas Legend" (1849), by James Rees, a Philadelphia-based Christian missionary. In the story, an old man and woman, both carrying a bundle on the back, are given shelter in a home on Christmas eve as weary travelers. The next morning, the children of the house find an abundance of gifts for them, and the couple is revealed to be not "old Santa Claus and his wife", but the hosts' long-lost elder daughter and her husband in disguise.

Mrs. Santa Claus is mentioned by name in the pages of the Yale Literary Magazine in 1851, where the student author (whose name is given only as "A. B.") writes of the appearance of Santa Claus at a Christmas party:

[I]n bounded that jolly, fat and funny old elf, Santa Claus. His array was indescribably fantastic. He seemed to have done his best; and we should think, had Mrs. Santa Claus to help him.

An account of a Christmas musicale at the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, New York in 1854 included an appearance by Mrs. Santa Claus, with baby in arms, who danced to a holiday song.

A passing references to Mrs. Santa Claus was made in an essay in Harper's Magazine in 1862, and in the comic novel The Metropolites (1864) by Robert St. Clar, she appears in a woman's dream, wearing "Hessian high boots, a dozen of short, red petticoats, an old, large, straw bonnet" and bringing the woman a wide selection of finery to wear.

A woman who may or may not be Mrs. Santa Claus appeared in the children's book Lill in Santa Claus Land and Other Stories by Ellis Towne, Sophie May and Ella Farman, published in Boston in 1878...

Santa Claus' wife made her most active appearance yet by Katherine Lee Bates in her poem "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride" (1889). "Goody" is short for "Goodwife" or "Mrs."

In Bates' poem, Mrs. Claus wheedles a Christmas Eve sleigh-ride from a reluctant Santa in recompense for tending their toy and bonbon laden Christmas trees, their Thanksgiving turkeys, and their "rainbow chickens" that lay Easter eggs. Once away, Mrs. Claus steadies the reindeer while Santa goes about his work descending chimneys to deliver gifts. She begs Santa to permit her to descend a chimney. Santa grudingly grants her request and she descends a chimney to mend a poor child's tattered stocking and to fill it with gifts. Once the task is completed, the Clauses return to their Arctic home. At the end of the poem, Mrs. Claus remarks that she is the "gladdest of the glad" because she has had her "own sweet will".

The 1956 popular song by George Melachrino, "Mrs. Santa Claus," helped standardize and establish the character and role in the popular imagination.

From Wikipedia article on Mrs. Claus.

(Image credit: Zazzle)

Origins of Santa Claus

The word Santa Claus came from the Dutch Sinterklaas.

Rockin' "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen puts a whole new spin on this favorite song.

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Article is revised with permission from Santa History: How Saint Nicholas Became Santa Claus

Do You Believe in Santa?

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    • Hedremp profile image

      Sandra Wilson 5 years ago from Wilson Education Resource Centre

      This is a wonderfully detailed history of Santa! Keeping such information in our heads will help keep Santa in our hearts! Thanks!

    • I-sparkle profile image

      I-sparkle 6 years ago

      Unfortunately, not anymore. But for a long time when I was a child.