Santa Claus wasn’t always a jolly old man with a white beard and a red coat. Here’s the story behind this beloved Christmas character.
There are very few things that define Christmas quite as much as Santa Claus. Carols, lights, and trees—that’s it. But even those don’t manage to make kids look forward to the holiday as effectively as the jolly old man in the red suit. We all know the role he now plays, but do you know where his legend comes from?
Santa Claus has an interesting history developed over many centuries. Among his earliest influences was a central Roman God, Saturn, preceded by the Greek God Zeus. Their Norse counterpart, Odin, also gave rise to numerous of Santa Claus’ famous features.
As you may have heard, however, Santa’s most notable progenitor was a wealthy 4th-century bishop, named Nicholas of Myra, whom the Catholic Church later canonized. St. Nicholas served as inspiration for a Dutch legendary figure, Sinterklaas, who is arguably the immediate predecessor of our contemporary image of the magical gift-giver.
Born some 280 years after Christ, St. Nicholas lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. He became an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek city known as Myra, located in modern-day Turkey. Legend has it that Nicholas of Myra received an enormous inheritance, which he donated throughout the years to the sick and poor. He was known to perform many good deeds with his wealth, but one story is particularly famous. It is said that three sisters were about to be sold into prostitution out of need, when Nicholas came to their father’s house and secretly left them three small sacks of gold. The money served as dowry so the young girls could be married, thereby avoiding a dreadful fate.
Over the centuries, as stories like these propagated throughout Europe, Nicholas of Myra became the most prominent gift-giving figure around. He was thoroughly admired and revered, and the Catholic Church eventually made him a saint. Considered the patron of sailors and children, and sometimes of many other groups, Saint Nick (as he was also known) enjoyed an enduring fame that has lasted even to this day.
To honor him and his legacy, people around Europe used to exchange presents from the Middle Ages until now on the day of his death, December 6.
The Old Pagan Gods
Nicholas of Myra didn’t exactly look like a jolly old elf with a long white beard and a little round belly. That image came centuries later, and it went through several iterations. As it often occurs, the legendary figure of the protector of children borrowed familiar features from other well-known icons, such as ancient gods. Pagan western gods, to be specific. Zeus, and later Saturn, was associated with magical abilities and great beards that symbolized power, kindness, and magic, all of which were attributed to St. Nicholas.
Odin, the most prominent of the Norse Gods, was often depicted as an old man with a long, white beard. That’s not enough to be Santa’s predecessor, you say. Well, how about this? Odin was said to ride a magical flying steed, Sleipnir, across the sky. This image was a most direct inspiration for Sinterklaas, who you’ll undoubtedly agree is a key influence on the way we think about Santa.
All was good and happy in the Christian world until the 16th century, when Reformation made a mess of everything. Just kidding, it was not all happy. The Church was a highly corrupted, hypocritical, and oppressive institution, which is why a good portion of Europe’s population wanted to part ways with it. When Reformation occurred, most protestant countries also gave up the veneration of saints—thus, many stopped worshiping St. Nicholas altogether. But several nations still wanted their children to receive gifts. Who would do it now that Saint Nick was off the table? The job went to Baby Jesus, and the gift-giving date was moved to December 25th.
But surely a baby, regardless of his godly status, couldn’t possibly be taken seriously in the task of carrying thousands of heavy toys on his back. Also, Baby Jesus wasn’t scary enough to threaten kids into good behavior—because child psychological abuse wasn’t a thing back then, right? Thus, other scary Germanic figures arose, such as Ashenklas (Ashy Nicholas) or Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas).
But the Netherlands refused to let go of St. Nicholas. In spite of protestantism, the Dutch still wanted to maintain their gift-giving tradition intact, so they kept the original December 6 date, when “Sinterklaas,” short for Sint Nikolaas (Saint Nicholas in Dutch), came riding in a gray flying horse (much like Sleipnir) over the village houses.
Sinterklaas became popular in America in the late 18th century, brought to the New World by Dutch immigrants. It took some time and doing for him to be actually a mainstream feature of Christmas celebrations. American writer Washington Irving was among the first to establish Sinterklaas’ image in the imagination of Americans when he wrote about a pipe-smoking Nicholas who would soar through the sky in a flying wagon, bearing gifts for well-behaved children.
A few years later, Irving’s friend, Clement Clarke Moore, is said to have written the famous poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” The poem portrayed a Christmas character flying on a magical sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer, who would then land on rooftops and slide up and down chimneys to secretly leave gifts in stockings. The poem went viral. The word “Sinterklaas” became anglicized as “Santa Claus,” and soon everyone was talking about him. By the end of the 19th century, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast drew one of the first modern-day images of Santa as we know him, based on Moore’s description and adding some features of his own, such as the red coat. It was a short step from that to the Santa we all know and love today.
So yeah, that’s the story of how a wealthy bishop and a pagan god gave us our most beloved Christmas character, the jolly good old gift-giving elf. Merry Christmas!
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