The man we know as Santa Claus has a story of his own. Today, it is considered primarily as the gay man in red, but its history dates back to the third century.
Find out more about the history of Santa Claus from its origins to today’s favorite shopping mall, and discover how two New Yorkers-Clement Clark Moore and Thomas Nast-were the main influences of the millions of Santa Claus children waiting each Christmas Eve.
THE LEGEND OF ST. NICHOLAS
The legend of Santa Claus goes back hundreds of years to a monk named San Nicolás. It is believed that Nicholas was born around the year 280 d. C. in Patara, near Myra in present-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, San Nicolás became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all his inherited wealth and traveled through the countryside helping the poor and the sick. One of St. Nicholas’ best-known stories is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold as slaves or prostitutes by their father by providing them with a dowry so they could get married. Over the course of many years, Nicholas’s popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His party is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, on December 6. Traditionally it was considered a lucky day to make big purchases or get married. In the Renaissance, Saint Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of the saints began to become discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in the Netherlands.
SINTER KLAAS COMES TO NEW YORK
San Nicolás made his first foray into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773, and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.
The name of Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, an abbreviated form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for San Nicolás). In 1804, John Pintard, member of the Historical Society of New York, distributed woodcuts of San Nicolás in the annual meeting of the society. The background of the engraving contains images of Santa Claus now familiar, including stockings full of toys and fruits hanging over a fireplace. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the stories of Sinter Klaas when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. As his prominence grew, Sinter Klaas was described as a “rascal” with a three-cornered blue hat, red waistcoat and yellow socks for a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a “pair of huge flamenco sleeves” .
SHOPPING MALL SANTAS
The delivery of gifts, mainly focused on children, has been an important part of the Christmas celebration since the rejuvenation of the holidays at the beginning of the 19th century. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday ads, which often featured images of the recently popular Santa Claus. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia store to see a life-size model of Santa Claus. It was only a matter of time before the stores began to attract the children, and their parents, with the appeal of taking a look at a “living” Santa Claus. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided to families in need. They began to dress unemployed men in Santa Claus costumes and send them to the streets of New York to solicit donations. Those Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells in the corners of American cities ever since.
‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled “An account of a visit from St. Nicholas.” Moore’s poem, which at first hesitated to publish due to the frivolous nature of his subject, is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a “happy and correct elf” with a corpulent figure and the supernatural ability to ascend A fireplace with a simple nod of the head. Although some of Moore’s images were probably taken from other sources, his poem helped to popularize the now familiar image of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve in “a miniature sleigh” led by eight flying reindeers, leaving gifts for deserving children “An account of a visit from St. Nicholas” created a new and immediately popular American icon. In 1881, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast was inspired by Moore’s poem to create the first image that coincides with our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, depicted Santa Claus as a burly and cheerful man with a full white beard, with a sack loaded with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit adorned with white hair, the workshop of the North Pole, the elves and his wife, Mrs. Claus.
TO SANTA FOR ANY OTHER NAME
The Santa Claus of the United States of the eighteenth century was not the only donor of gifts inspired by St. Nicholas that appeared at Christmas. Similar figures were popular all over the world. It was believed that Christkind or Kris Kringle gave gifts to Swiss and German children who behave well. Meaning “Baby Jesus”, Christkind is an angelic figure often accompanied by Saint Nicholas in his Christmas missions. In Scandinavia, it was thought that a cheerful elf named Jultomten delivered gifts on a sled pulled by goats. The English legend explains that Santa Claus visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill the children’s socks with holiday treats. Pere Noel is responsible for filling the shoes of French children. In Russia, it is believed that an old woman named Babouschka intentionally gave erroneous instructions to wise men to Bethlehem so they could not find Jesus. Later, she felt repentant, but could not find the men to undo the damage. To this day, on January 5, Babouschka visits Russian children leaving gifts by their beds with the hope that one of them will be the baby Jesus and she will be forgiven. In Italy, there is a similar story about a woman named La Befana, a kind witch who rides a broom through the chimneys of Italian houses to deliver toys in the socks of lucky children.
THE NINTH REINDEER
Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all,” was born more than a hundred years after his eight flying counterparts. The red nose wonder was the brainchild of Robert L. May, an editor of the Montgomery Ward department store.
In 1939, May wrote a poem-story with a Christmas theme to help attract holiday traffic to her store. Using a rhyming pattern similar to Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” May told the story of Rudolph, a young reindeer who was mocked by the other deer because of his large, bright red nose. But, when Christmas Eve became blurred and Santa Claus worried about not being able to deliver gifts that night, the ex-pariah saved Christmas by driving the sleigh by the light of his red nose. Rudolph’s message: if given the opportunity, a liability can become a proven asset as popular. Montgomery Ward sold almost two and a half million copies of the story in 1939. When it was reissued in 1946, the book sold more than three and a half million copies. Several years later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks, wrote a short song based on the story of Rudolph (1949). It was registered by Gene Autry and sold more than two million copies. Since then, the story has been translated into 25 languages and has become a television movie, narrated by Burl Ives, which has captivated audiences every year since 1964.