Christmas is celebrated worldwide! At first, it was only associated with the birth of Jesus Christ. So only people that partook in the Christian religion would commemorate this tradition. However, a new symbol– (or figure) also borrowed the spotlight that was far more universal for the world—the Legend of Santa Claus.
We here at Bookstr are going to recount how this jolly ol’ fellow took our hearts. His history can go as far back as the 3rd century. At one point in time, Santa Claus was not a make-believe person. In fact, he was a real man named Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas Origin Story
Circulating around the year 280 in Patara, Lycia (present-day Turkey), Saint Nicholas was born. Unfortunately, his parents passed when he was relatively young, and he gained an inheritance from their deaths. He ultimately decided to use his newfound fortune to give to the needy and sick. He was a devoted Christian and later served as a bishop of Myra– present-day Demre.
Because of the many good deeds he gave to his community, legends began to form– and quite possibly, these stories reign some truth. A notable story was about a father who did not have enough money to pay his three daughters dowries. He was thinking of selling them as slaves. So good Ol’ Saint Nicholas snuck into their house late at night three days in a row and gave them a bag full of money. By the third night, the father caught Saint Nicholas and thanked him for everything he had done for them. It sounds like a modern-day Santa Claus putting gifts into stockings, don’t you think?
Saint Nicholas’ death is believed to have been December 6, 343. Since then, for many years, his miracle stories and work for the poor have spread to other countries. He was popular in Europe until the Reformation era of the 1500s. It was a religious movement that led to the creation of Protestantism. In part of this movement, it caused people to turn away from honoring saints. However, Saint Nicholas’ legend didn’t completely leave people’s minds. He was still an important figure in Holland.
December 6 became a holiday to commemorate Saint Nicholas in Holland. Children would leave their shoes out at night, and Saint Nicholas left goodies for them by the morning. In the 1700s, the Dutch brought these traditions to America along with the Legend of Saint Nicholas– known in Dutch as Sint Nikolaas. His nickname was Sinterklaas.
By the time Sinterklaas got to America, his name was once again transformed to Santa Claus, and instead of celebrating him on December 6, he became a part of Christmas.
Santa Claus Story Evolves
With so many people taking inspiration from the notorious legend of Saint Nicholas, he became the muse of different people throughout the 19th century. In 1804, John Pintard, a New York Historical Society member, created woodcuts of Saint Nicholas. In the graving, you could see stockings with toys hanging over a fireplace. Washington Irving mentioned Saint Nicholas in his satirical History of New York in 1809. He portrayed him as a Dutchman who flew in a wagon and dropped gifts through chimneys.
In 1820, Clement Clarke Moore wrote An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas, more popularly known as T’was The Night Before Christmas adding to the legend. He is described as a heavy jolly man who enters the house through a chimney, leaves present to good children, and then rides into the night on a sleigh with flying reindeer. The following year, a child’s book entitled The Children’s Friend was the first picture book of Santa Claus putting gifts in stockings!
In 1881, A cartoonist, Thomas Nast, added refined details to Saint Nicholas with a drawing of Santa wearing his famous red suit with white fur trim. Nast also implied that the jolly man lived at the North Pole too. Thus, creating the legendary Santa Claus.
Santa Claus Traditions
Gift-giving was primarily for the children during Christmas time. Children were enamored by Santa Claus more and more. Stores began to advertise toys and other Christmas shopping in the 1820s. By the 1840s, newspapers began incorporating Santa Claus into holiday advertisements. Only time would make Santa Claus more popular, so in 1841, a lifesize model of him was created.
Consequently, children became obsessed with Santa Claus, so when Christmas began to stroll around parents would write letters posing as Santa Claus to tell them how bad or how good they’ve been this year. These initial letters date back as early as the 1820s. Over the years, letters started coming from children to Santa as to why they deserved the toys they wanted. It’s become a tradition, and even now– kids are still writing letters to him!
Can the Real Santa Claus Please Stand Up!
In 1890, James Edgar, the owner of The Boston Store in Brockton, Massachusetts, dressed up as Santa Claus in a homemade suit. Edgar was kind of like Santa himself, as he treated his employees fairly and paid them well wages. He had a habit of dressing up for holiday-related theme costumes. Because of his Santa stunt, it started a trend of men dressing up in other department stores and malls as Santa.
In the 1890s, the Salvation Army was in need of money to provide Christmas meals for the poor, so they began hiring unemployed men to dress in Santa suits and sending them to the streets of New York to ask for donations. You can still find Santa Claus down the streets of New York, ringing that bell for a coin!
Santa Claus Takes Hollywood
Santa Claus was bound to make it to Hollywood. With his major success in newspaper ads and people beginning to dress up like St. Nick, it was time for him to enter films. Miracle on 34th Street was the first popular Santa film in which a little girl thinks the mall Santa Claus, Kris Kringle is the real Santa Claus.
There have been countless animated Santa films throughout the decades— taking most of their popularity in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1990s, Tim Allen became Santa in Santa Clause, ultimately becoming the world’s Santa in the movie world. Recently, there has been a new TV show as a continuation of the original called, The Santa Clauses.
I highly recommend Klaus on Netflix for a new take on Santa Claus!
Santa Claus isn’t one single person. Yes, he was inspired by Saint Nicholas, but he was morphed by many different people that extended the legend to everyday cheer. A Claus is someone that wants to help people in any way they can, and they don’t have to be a jolly old chunky man to be a Claus! There is a Santa Claus in all of us.