The History of Santa Claus

The History of Santa Claus

What is the story of Santa Claus? Just who is this jolly old man?

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
A Visit from St. Nicholas1

In the West, legend has it that every year on the night of December 24, a jolly white-bearded man swoops down from his workshop at the North Pole to deliver presents to all the children who have been good that year. So, as one Christmas song advises, “You better be good, for goodness sake.”2

The story of Santa Claus is told to kids all over the world in some shape or form. But how did this come about? Where did the story begin, and how did we get to the modern version we know today?

What is the history behind this jovial man who embodies the spirit of gift-giving and charity?

Saint Nicholas

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the history of Santa Claus involves a mishmash of mythological and historical figures. It all started during the fourth century with a bishop by the name of Nicholas living in what is now Turkey.3

Nicholas was born into a wealthy merchant family but was said to have been extremely pious, even from a young age. He became involved in the church and quickly rose in the ranks. His piety was matched only by his generosity. When his parents died while he was still a youth, Nicholas determined to use the money he inherited to help others.4

Many stories about Nicholas have survived the test of time. One tells of a merchant who lost everything and was unable to provide a dowry for his three daughters. Seeing no other course of action, he resigned himself to having his daughters work in the brothels. However, after he had come to this difficult decision, a strange thing happened. During three consecutive nights, someone tossed a bag of gold into the merchant’s window—enough for his daughters’ dowries. On the third night, the merchant waited for the delivery, running out to investigate his mysterious benefactor. Upon discovery, Nicholas made the merchant promise not to reveal who had saved his daughters until after Nicholas had died.5

Another tale tells the story of an evil butcher who was luring, killing, and dismembering traveling students and sticking them in pickling barrels. After learning of this tragedy, Nicholas went to the barrels and commanded the murdered students to arise. They did, fully membered.6

While some of the stories about Saint Nicholas may seem a bit more fantastical, they all contribute to the idea that he was a pious, charitable man with a passion for helping the helpless—especially children. 

Sinterklaas and the Christkind

After Bishop Nicholas died on December 6, 343, he was sainted. Because he became one of the patron saints of sailors, stories about Saint Nicolas spread everywhere ships could travel.7 Over time features of Saint Nicholas merged with other mythological elements.

For example, one major addition was the Germanic belief in the judgment of Odin. Odin was said to fly through the night and judge the people of a village based on how they behaved toward their family, livestock, and community.8 This was incorporated into the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas. The idea is quite similar to Santa’s annual trip to distribute gifts to the well-behaved children of the world.

Sinterklaas—dressed in red—arrives in mid-November, via steamboat, with his helper “Black Peter.” Between the time of his arrival and the eve of his feast day on December 6, children can put their shoes by the fireplace or the back door, where Sinterklaas and Black Peter will leave treats as they ride from house to house on a white stallion named Amerigo. On December 5, children sing songs to Sinterklaas, waiting for his knock on the door, which signifies that they have been good that year and have been rewarded with a bag of presents.9

However, the veneration of Saint Nicholas was strongly opposed by sixteenth-century German priest and religious reformer Martin Luther. He introduced the figure of the Christkind in an effort to keep the focus on the baby Jesus. Also known as the Christ Child, the Christkind became known as a bringer of gifts to German, Croatian, and Czech children. The Christkind visits on December 24, leaving presents for families to wake up to on the day of Christ’s birth. This day of celebration was an intentional departure from the tradition of celebrating Saint Nicholas on December 6, his feast day.10

But the Dutch were unwilling to give up Sinterklaas. He is still celebrated in northern European countries today.

Father Christmas

In England, the character Father Christmas further influenced the development of the figure we now know as Santa Claus. Originally unassociated with Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas was a person who visited others on December 25, bringing news of Jesus Christ’s birth and encouraging everyone to celebrate and feast.

Father Christmas was an icon not for children but rather for adults. In this, Father Christmas differs from both Sinterklaas and the modern incarnation of Santa Claus. 

He also has a more controversial history. During the same reformation in which Martin Luther tried to suppress veneration of Saint Nicholas, the feasting that Father Christmas encouraged became considered an inappropriate way to celebrate Christ’s birth. It was even prohibited by Protestants.11 

This devolved into a split, with people on both sides of the Father Christmas debate. One group supported the celebration of Christmas with feasting and revelry; the other believed a solemn church service and reflection was more appropriate. In the end, Father Christmas and his celebrations became a softer version of the earlier revelry.

Santa Claus

All four of these figures—Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, the Christkind, and Father Christmas—were instrumental in the establishment of the modern Santa Claus.

While Puritans were some of the earliest immigrants to the United States, it was later Dutch immigrants who brought with them Sinterklaas. After the Revolutionary War, all things British fell out of fashion and the people of the new United States looked to other influences to guide their development as a nation.12

In 1804, John Pintard founded the New York Historical Society and advocated that Saint Nicholas be named the patron saint of New York. In 1809, Washington Irving wrote A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, in which Sinterklaas figured prominently.13 Irving’s version of Sinterklaas was less of a saint and more of a sprite who wore Dutch clothing and smoked out of a clay pipe. 

From this, poet Clement Clark Moore penned his 1823 work “The Visit from Saint Nicholas,” more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas.”14 But though this poem is much beloved, Moore’s version of Santa was smaller and more elfish in his ways than our contemporary version.

It wasn’t until the 1860s that the more rotund version of Santa came about, thanks to Thomas Nast and his annual cartoons of Santa in Harper’s Weekly. Through Nast’s illustrations, Santa gained the red jacket and beard we’ve come to expect of Santa.15 (At the time, he still had a pipe; thankfully, Santa has since quit smoking.)

This leaves only a few finishing touches needed to bridge the gap between the Santa Claus of Clement Moore and Thomas Nast and our modern version. These were provided by the Coca-Cola company and Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator and artist. This version of Santa—said to be inspired by Sundblom’s reading of Moore’s poem—was the full-bodied, grandfather-like character with which everyone is familiar today.16

After hundreds of years of character development, we’ve finally arrived at the modern conception of Santa Claus.

Holiday Cheer

Despite the differences between all these characters, the true spirit of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, the Christkind, and Santa Claus is one of generosity and goodwill toward all.

Saint Nicholas shows us that we should use what we have for those who have not. Sinterklaas instructs us in the importance of treating each other well throughout the year—not just on holidays. Father Christmas and the Christkind remind us that the Christmas season is not just for the celebration of being kind and giving to one another but to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ—who is, after all, our ultimate example of kindness and generosity.

All of these elements come together in Santa Claus, who heralds the celebration of the birth of Christ, shows us a spirit of generosity, and encourages goodwill toward our fellow man. Let us not forget this important component of the story of Santa Claus. May we join him in joyously exclaiming, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”17