The Surprising Origins of Santa Claus
Contrary to popular opinion, Santa Claus wasn’t created by the retail industry. Read on to find out the surprising origins of one of the most widely recognized symbols of the holidays.
by Mary Wimmer
Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, St. Nicholas or just plain old St. Nick – we may know him by his many names, but few actually know where he comes from. As it turns out, Santa Claus wasn’t always bearded and bespectacled. In fact, our depictions of one of the most widely recognized symbols of Christmas couldn’t perhaps be further from reality.
His remains have even been kept all these years later; they can be found in Italy at the Venetian church of San Nicolò al Lido. Religious art helped his good deeds outlast his lifetime and in much of Europe the saint is usually depicted as a thin man wearing the canonical robes of a bishop. So, how did we end up with a fat and jolly guy in a red and white suit?
Well, let’s take this story to the Middle Ages to find out. During the Medieval Ages, children were often given presents in St. Nicholas’ honour, usually on the eve of his name day (December 6.) The custom of gifting children at Christmas was further propagated during the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther. Opposed as he was to the veneration of saints, Luther was the first to suggest Christkind as the bringer of presents. But St. Nicholas remained popular as the bearer of gifts among most people.
Fast forward a few hundred years to the 18th century when the legend of St. Nicholas was first brought to the New World by the Dutch immigrants that settled “New Amsterdam,” or what is now known as New York. The Dutch had given St. Nicholas the nickname “Sinter Klaas,” derived from their way of saying St. Nicholas (“Sint Nikolaas”) and that is how Santa Claus got his most-famous modern-day moniker.
It wasn’t too long before the retail industry began to follow suit. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping and newspapers of the era even created separate sections for holiday ads that sometimes featured pictures of Santa Claus. At the turn of the 20th century, the Salvation Army had men dress up as St. Nick in beards and red-and-white costumes…and the rest, as they say, is history.
Have a safe and very Merry Christmas!