We all know the roly-poly, bearded man in the red suit, who is such an icon for the Christmas period. But where did Santa Claus come from? There are and have been many names for our favourite Christmas character, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and Old Saint Nick, naming but a few, but where did it all begin?
The original St. Nicholas was from Turkey in the 4th century, being the bishop of Myra he was credited with doing a number of miracles, particularly for sailors and children. After he died he became a patron for these people, and they held a ‘feast day’ to remember him on December 6th. While St. Nicholas was alive, Pope Julius I selected a day for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. He happened to pick December 25th! There had been a long pagan midwinter festival held around this time so the Pope hoped the festival would Christianise it.
After a while, December 25th became associated with St. Nicholas’ Feast Day and his connection with Christmas was found. A tradition was established that he used to go and visit houses and children would leave nuts, fruits, sweets and other gifts around their home to welcome him.
As the reformation took hold of most of Europe the popularity of St. Nicholas dropped in most protestant countries apart from Holland where he was still known as Sinter Klass. After this tradition came to the United States he was later known as ‘Sancte Claus’. It seems likely the tradition of St. Nicholas became known in America from a wave of Dutch custom after the Revolutionary War. Author Washington Irving, of Legend of Sleepy Hollow, features St. Nicholas in a comic – History of New York City in 1809.
John Pintard, Founder of the New York Historical Society took an interest in St Nicholas and an anniversary dinner was held for him in 1810. An artist called Alexander Anderson was commissioned to draw the Saint for the dinner. At this time he was still portrayed as a religious figure but now was clearly seen dropping presents into children’s stockings hung by the fire to dry.
A poem called ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ was probably the way that the image of Father Christmas was put in American’s minds the most. It was written by Clement Moore in 1822 and included some elements of German and Norse Legends. In the poem Moore describes him as a tiny man with a sleigh pulled by eight miniature reindeer. They fly him from house to house and at each one he comes down the chimney to fill stockings with gifts, which are hung on the fireplace.
Moore had originally wrote this tale for the enjoyment of his own family but was very popular and was later published under the more well-known title ‘The Night before Christmas’.
But where did the reindeer come from?
People of Northern Scandinavia often used reindeer to pull their sledges around, reindeer are much more suited than North American deer as they are better adapted to the winter weather, as they have heavy fur coats and flat hooves ideal for the snow.
As time went by more was added to the Santa Claus legend, such as:
- Thomas Nast, a cartoonist at the time imagined him living in the North Pole
- He also gave him a workshop to make his toys, and a big book with all the names of the children who had been naughty and nice.
- 19th century Santa was depicted wearing different coloured suits, purple blue, green and red, all of which faded out by the 20th From this time onwards Santa Claus was known as a man in a red suit!
So now you know, it’s over hundreds of years of legends that brought us the Santa Claus we know and love today!