The secret origins of Santa Claus

Written by james holloway Google
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Who is the spirit of Christmas and where did he come from?

The secret origins of Santa Claus
The character of Santa Claus is a composite of many different stories. (Getty Thinkstock)

He had a broad face, and a little round belly That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly

— "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," Clement Clarke Moore (1823)

Whether he's called Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas or something else, the jolly fat man in the red suit with the sack full of presents is one of the most beloved symbols of the Christmas season. But Santa hasn't always been part of Christmas celebrations. In fact, he's a fairly recent arrival, although the elements that make up his character have been around for centuries.

Saint Nicholas of Myra

The secret origins of Santa Claus
The city of Myra was home to the historical Saint Nicholas. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Santa Claus is traditionally identified with Saint Nicholas, a bishop of the city of Myra, now Demre in modern-day Turkey. The historical Saint Nicholas lived in the third and fourth centuries AD. Like many saints, a body of tales grew up around him. It was these stories which, over time, influenced the development of Santa Claus.

The most famous story relating to Saint Nicholas does involve gift-giving. In the story, the bishop finds that one of the local Christians is destitute and worries that his daughters, lacking dowries, may have no choice but to become prostitutes. Saint Nicholas comes to the man's house during the night and throws a bag of gold for each daughter through his window. The story varies from version to version, but the key element is that Saint Nicholas leaves gifts without appearing personally.

The tradition of Saint Nicholas being associated with gifts manifested itself in various ways in both Orthodox and Catholic Christianity. Gift-giving traditions, both gifts to the poor and gifts from parents to children, were associated with the celebration of the saint's feast day on 6 December. Celebrations of this type occurred all over Europe, including in the Netherlands. It was the Dutch celebration that would prove to be particularly significant in the development of Santa Claus.


The secret origins of Santa Claus
(Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images)

Saint Nicholas was and is a very popular saint in the Netherlands, Belgium and surrounding areas, perhaps because he is a patron saint of sailors and fishermen. He is also a patron saint of children. Dutch celebrations of Saint Nicholas greatly influenced the development of the modern image of Santa Claus.

The feast day of Saint Nicholas is celebrated in many European countries. Although local customs vary, the celebrations often include the arrival of Saint Nicholas, who gives presents to good children. Bad children may be menaced by the saint's helpers, such as Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands or the ferocious Krampus in Austria.

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas is known as Sinterklaas. He wears a bishop's mitre and vestments, usually red, and has a flowing white beard. Dutch settlement in what later became the United States, particularly in New York, brought many Dutch customs to America; many words in American English, such as "cookie" and "boss", originate from Dutch. It is notable that the first images of Santa Claus in his modern form originate from New York, an area of Dutch settlement. The white beard and red clothes of Sinterklaas were adopted for the more secular character of Santa Claus, although the bishop's vestments were abandoned. They were replaced with clothes borrowed from another holiday character.

Father Christmas

The secret origins of Santa Claus
(Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images)

The other major visual influence on Santa Claus was a folk character popular across Europe. Father Christmas represented the idea of Christmas as a social festival, full of good cheer and celebration. He was often, although not always, depicted as a jolly fat man, often crowned with holly or other seasonal plants.

The British image of Father Christmas varied from artist to artist, but from at least the 17th century he was typically depicted as an older, heavyset man in a long robe, usually green. He often served as a satirical counterpoint to those opposed to Christmas festivities, such as the 17th-century Puritans who believed that the day should be an occasion for religious worship rather than feasting.

The image of Father Christmas as an advocate of seasonal good cheer appears most notably in Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol", in which the Ghost of Christmas Present wears a fur-lined green robe and a crown of holly. By the time Dickens wrote, however, Father Christmas's jollity and fur-lined robe were being combined with the traditional image of Sinterklaas in North America.

The Christmas mashup

The term "Santa Claus" first appeared in 1809 in the work of American author Washington Irving, whose humorous tales based on New York Dutch folklore also included the story of the Headless Horseman. Irving's Santa Claus was not the red-coated gift-giver of the modern image, but the transition would come quickly.

The 19th century saw the solidification of the modern image of Santa Claus. An anonymous poem published in 1823, now generally credited to Clement Clarke Moore, identified Santa Claus with Saint Nicholas and popularised the image of him being carried in a sled by reindeer. This character combined the plump jollity of Father Christmas with the anonymous gift-giving of Sinterklaas,

The definitive modern visual image of Santa Claus derives from the works of artist Thomas Nast. Nast, a 19th-century cartoonist well-known for his political works, defined the modern version of Santa Claus, making him a large, heavyset, fatherly figure. Although this image had existed previously, Nast's work was so popular that it fixed the perception of Santa Claus in a single form, reducing the variation in images that had previously been the norm. However, Nast's image was still not quite the modern Santa Claus. That image would be finalised by a Swedish-American artist named Haddon Sundblom (see sidebar).

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