05 March 2021 (updated)

The History of Santa Claus: The Man Behind the Beard

We all know the story of the jolly old Santa Claus of the North Pole. One of the most magical characters in American folklore-- but is he truly American? The modern image of the man we know and love has certainly been shaped by American culture, but his roots are far deeper than our nation's short history. Read more to learn about the history of Santa Claus and how he's changed over the years.

The Beginning of Saint Nicholas

The Most Famous Legend of Saint Nicholas

In the town of Myra, there lived a man and his three daughters. They had fallen on hard times, and the man had no dowries, money to be paid to the grooms' family for his daughters' marriages. Without dowries, the girls were without hope for a future and likely to be sold into slavery. St. Nicholas was the bishop of the town and a man of generosity and humility. He wanted to somehow help the family without drawing attention to himself.

So, in the secret of the night, St. Nicholas visited the family's home and tossed a bag of coins through an open window. The bag sailed through the air and landed in a sock hanging by the fire to dry (in the European tradition, the bag landed in a shoe).

Shoes filled with gifts from "Sinter Klaas"

This bag of gold allowed the father to pay a dowry for the eldest daughter. The mysterious gold appeared a second night, a dowry for the middle daughter. Determined to find the generous stranger, the father kept watch at night. When Bishop Nicholas visited a third time to deliver the final bag of gold for the youngest daughter, the father caught him.

He recognized the bishop and asked why he had been so generous. Embarrassed, Nicholas begged the man to keep his identity a secret. He told him to thank God alone for providing the gifts in response to his prayers for deliverance.

By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas became the most popular saint in Europe. Even with the Reformation, when there was far less veneration of saints, the reputation of Saint Nicholas remained highly favorable.

Where Did Santa Claus Come From?

The Dutch brought the legend of Santa Claus (Sinterklaas, shortened from Sint Nikolaas) to New York City (New Amsterdam) toward the end of the 18th century. They were also credited for bringing the tradition of giving presents and sweets to children on his "feast day," December 6. December 1773 saw the first instance of recording Sinter Klaas in pop culture. A New York newspaper reported groups of Dutch settlers who gathered to honor the anniversary of the patron saint's death.

In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, handed out woodcuts that depicted St. Nicholas at the society's yearly meeting. In the background, toys and treats hung in stockings by the fireplace. This further popularized the now-familiar image of Santa Claus.

In 1809, the image of Saint Nicholas was even further popularized when Washington Irving called him the "patron saint of New York" in "The History of New York."

How Did the History of Santa Claus Evolve?

Thomas Nast was an enormous influence on the modern-day American image of the man in the big red suit. His 1863 cartoon depictions of Saint Nick in Harper's Weekly were largely based on the famous poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," also known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Clement Clark Moore wrote, "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" in 1823. His colorful depiction of Saint Nicholas as pipe-smoking, dressed in all fur, with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and a nose like a cherry. Moore also described him as with a broad, round face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.* All of these traits came to life in Nast's cartoons in Harper's Weekly, a now-iconic depiction of the red-suited Father Christmas we know and love.

Shopping Malls and Santa

In the early 19th century, the celebration of Christmas was rejuvenated. Stores began advertising the Christmas season around 1820. By 1840, newspapers made sections specific to Christmas advertisements, which heavily featured Santa Claus. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money to financially support the free Christmas meals they gave to families in need. In a stroke of brilliance, they dressed unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sent them to the streets of New York to collect donations. Those familiar Santas of the Salvation Army can still be seen on the street corners of U.S. cities everywhere.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has featured Santa Claus since its inception in 1924. Thousands of people of all ages still line up to meet the iconic New York Macy's Santa every year. At shopping malls around the country, millions of children visit Santa Claus, sit on his lap, and tell him what they want for Christmas.

The History of Santa Claus and Coca-Cola

In 1931, illustrator Haddon Sundblom created an advertisement for Coca-Cola, depicting Santa Claus as a portly gentleman with a long, white beard and rosy cheeks dressed in a red suit with white fur trim. He had a wide, black belt, black boots, and a soft red cap. These advertisements further evolved the image of Santa away from his "saintly" or "bishop" garb and more of a jolly figure we know so well.

Santa Claus - The Modern Man in Red

Today, Santa Claus makes toys all year round with his hardworking elves and doting wife, Mrs. Claus, at the North Pole. He travels the world in his big sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, led by Rudolph and his bright, red nose that glows. He leaves presents under the Christmas tree and in stockings hung by the fire. He's even got little scout elves to keep tabs on kids during December to make sure they're well-behaved. Folklore, pop culture, books, and movies have all added details to the story of the man we've come to cherish.

What's your favorite gift that Santa ever brought? What's your favorite memory of Santa? Let us know in the comments!

*Moore, Clement Clarke. "A Visit from Saint Nicholas." in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. Random House, Inc., 1983.



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