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 humble story begins more than 1700 years ago in a backwater of the Byzantine Empire, circa 280 A.D. That’s when historians say that the real-life St. Nicholas lived in what today is the country of Turkey. He was a monk who gained fame far and wide for the generous gifts he lavished on the poor and destitute. Religious from an early age, St. Nicholas devoted much of his life to Christianity and so influential was he that after his death both Amsterdam and Moscow made him the patron saint of their respective cities.

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.

Then a hundred or so years later, Clement Clark Moore penned his famous poem “’Twas the Night before Christmas,” which described Santa as a rotund “right jolly old elf.” Thus, St. Nick had already gained a few pounds (and probably a paunch) in popular imagination when the artist Thomas Nast a few decades later drew a chubby man with a white beard giving out gifts in his picture, “Merry Old Santa Claus.” His cartoon, originally featured in the January 1, 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly, cemented contemporary notions of how St. Nick might have looked like. In fact, through his cartoons, Nast is also credited for introducing us all to Santa’s toy-making workshop in the North Pole, elves, and even Santa’s right-hand woman, Mrs. Claus.

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!