Most of us are extremely familiar with the jolly, white-bearded man in a red suit. But where did he come from? I decided to combine history and Christmas this week, and explored that question.
Most historians agree that the original Santa was a monk, Nicholas, who was born around 280 A.D. in what is now the country of Turkey. He was revered for his kindness and generosity, and was made a saint (Saint Nicholas) by the church. Saint Nicholas was also known as a protector of children and sailors, and was the most popular saint in Europe. His feast day is on December 6th, the day of his death, which is why some people have a tradition of providing small gifts on that day.
Now fast forward hundreds of years. Dutch settlers arriving in the mid-to-late 1700s in what is now New York City brought their traditions for Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas) with them. Over time, this name was shortened to Sinter Klaas, which then over more time became Santa Claus.
The first known picture of St. Nicholas in the U.S. was a woodcut done in New York in 1804. In earlier years, there was not one set description of his appearance. His appearance – as well as specific holiday customs – varied based on a person’s country of origin.
Our current image of him started in 1822 when Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem. Since he was an Episcopal minister, he almost didn’t publish such a frivolous piece. But he eventually did, and it became “Twas The Night Before Christmas.” This poem established Santa as a heavyset “right jolly old elf” who traveled in a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer and came down chimneys.
Then, in 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast created a drawing of Santa – inspired by the poem – which appeared in Harper’s Weekly. He was the first to show Santa with a white beard, wearing a red suit trimmed with white fur, and holding a sack full of toys. Oh, and Nast was also the first to depict elves and a Mrs. Claus in his drawings.
The Christmas holiday saw an upsurge of popularity in the early 1800s and Santa likewise became more popular. Stores started promoting Christmas shopping as early as 1820. Newspapers started including holiday advertisements in the 1840s, and often used images of Santa. The first life-size (though not live) Santa display was in a Philadelphia store in 1841. It was a huge success. Thousands of children (and their shopping parents) came to see him. It didn’t take long for stores to start hiring live Santas.
Speaking of live Santas, the Salvation Army first began using Santas as bell ringers in the early 1890s. They were short of funds to provide Christmas meals for poor families, so the Salvation Army paid unemployed men in New York City to dress up as Santa and ask for donations. The idea spread and evolved, which is why we now see Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells next to their kettles every holiday season.
So there you go. A brief summary of why Santa Claus is such an integral part of Christmas now. There are so many additional fascinating bits of Santa trivia I could have included (did you know in Canada he has his own postal code?) but I had to end this somewhere. I hope you enjoyed this fun trip back into history. And I hope you enjoy the coming days of the holiday season. For me, it’s time to wrap some presents and bake some cookies.
I write historical fiction, and I invite you to share the journey to published author with me.