Santa Claus: A Brief History

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Santa Claus

“He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot. A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.” These are the words from Clement Moore’s famous poem originally titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Who was St. Nicholas and how did he become known to most as Santa Claus?

The real St. Nicholas was born in Patara, Turkey in the third century. When Nicholas was very young his parents died. They left him an inheritance, which he chose to use to help poor families. He was a devout Christian and became Bishop of Myra.

Nicholas was so devout in his faith that he went to prison during a time when Christians were persecuted for their beliefs. Nicholas was released from prison and died on December 6, 343 AD. Nicholas was known in his lifetime for his kindness and generosity towards the poor.

A substance called manna formed at the place where he was buried. At the time people believed manna to have special healing powers. Many felt this was proof that Nicholas was in fact a saint. St. Nicholas Day was celebrated every year on December 6.

Various stories have been shared of St. Nicholas highlighting his generous nature. One of the most famous tales is that of the three daughters. Nicholas left gold in the stockings of three daughters who were too poor for their father to afford the dowries for them to be married. In the morning when the daughters woke they found the gold. It seemed a miracle had occurred .

So how did this patron St. Nicholas end up in America as our beloved Santa Claus? When immigrants began to move into the New World, we now know as America, they each brought along various holiday traditions. Once such group, the Dutch, brought with them the idea of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas was the Dutch word for St. Nicholas. They believed that Sinterklaas brought good children gifts each year on December 6, St. Nicholas Day.

The English-speaking children of America recited the word Sinterklaas so quickly it began to sound more like Santa Claus. The mispronunciation stuck making Sinterklaas into Santa Claus.

Two writers in American literature helped make Santa Claus an American tradition. Washington Irving was the first to include Santa Claus in his book, Diedrich Knickbocker’s History of New York. In this book Irving described Santa as a jolly man who rode in a wagon pulled by horses. This was no ordinary wagon, however. This wagon could fly! Santa would fly through the night on Christmas Eve dropping presents down chimneys of good little girls and boys.

The second writer to bring the magic of Santa Claus, to life in America was Clement Moore. Moore wrote the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” He described Santa as having a round belly and broad face. He also described him flying in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer instead of a wagon and horse.

Thomas Nast, an early American illustrator used Moore’s poem to create an image of what he believed Santa Claus to look like. Nast dressed Santa in a red suit and made him appear a kindly old man. One of the most important things Nast gave us was the idea that Santa lived at the North Pole.

In 1931 an artist Haddon Sundblom began painting many new images of Santa Claus. He gave Santa very human like qualities and helped make Santa become that much more real for children all over America.

There seems to be one last question to answer. Since St. Nicholas Day was traditionally celebrated on December 6 how did we come to associate Santa Claus with December 25?

During the 19th century, writers in New York felt that wanted to change the face of Christmas Day. They did not like how it currently was portrayed. The writers felt too many drunken mobs and raucous behavior were being the highlight of Christmas. The writers set out change this image. The first note of Santa Claus arriving on December 25th occurred in 1821 with a children’s book entitled, The Children’s Friend. The book described many aspects of Santa Claus, one in which he brought toys on Christmas Eve rather than December 6. This was one of many writings that helped bring Santa Claus to life on Christmas, changing the Christmas celebrations forever.

Santa Claus has not always been a welcomed figure in America. Some early Americans, called Puritans refused to include Santa Claus as part of Christmas, believing it took away from the birth of Jesus. They also believed in treating Christmas Day as any other day, instead of a day of celebration.

Whether young or old, most of us have all heard of Santa Claus. However, not all of us know the true story of his origins. It is always amazing and heartwarming to see a child’s delight and wonderment on Christmas morning when the presents under the tree read “from Santa.” Though many adults would say Santa Claus is only a figment in a child’s imagination, I say his spirit lives in our hearts. After all, the spirit of St. Nicholas is generosity, charity and kindness.

In the words of Clement Moore’s famous poem, “I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight.”