Santa Claus: The Evolution of a Childhood Legend


St Nicholas of Myra

Ah, it’s that time of year again; the time to take the kids to the overly crowded, local shopping mall to sit them on the lap of a certain jolly, red-suited, old man. Upon doing so, they’ll either burst into terrified screams or happily confess their heart’s desire in hopes of finding it under the Christmas tree on the morning of December 25th. Despite this being a long time tradition worldwide, the question remains for many: who is this mysterious man, and how did he come to be the magical childhood legend he is today?

The man we have come to know as Santa Claus, and the many characters and stories surrounding him, are some of the most beloved and most universal symbols of the holiday season, but not everyone knows that these stories and images can be traced back to a Christian monk named St. Nicholas, who was a superstar in his own right. Celebrated for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas was the patron saint of Greece and Russia. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. It is said he gave away all of his inherited wealth and travelled the countryside helping the poor, sick and downtrodden until his death in 343 A.D.

In one of the best known tales about St. Nicholas, he saves three poor sisters from being sold into slavery and prostitution by their own father. He did this by providing them with a dowry (a monetary offering to effectively market the sisters to prospective husbands.) Some accounts of this story claim he left this money for the family in secret, and brought a bag of money for each of the three daughters as they came of age to marry. By the time the youngest daughter was about to come of age, the father decided that he wanted to know who the do-gooder was, so he stayed awake on watch. To evade the father’s surveillance, St. Nicholas then opted to drop the money down the chimney, where it happened to fall into some stockings that were drying over the embers. Sounds kind of familiar, no?

St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of Children

St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of Children

Over the many years following his death, St. Nicholas became known as the protector of children and sailors. In many parts of the world, a feast day was (and in some places, still is) celebrated on the anniversary of his death: December 6. Traditionally, this was seen as a good day to make large purchases or to get married. By the seventeenth century, (I wasn’t kidding when I said “many years”) St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even when the honor and worship of saints began to be discouraged, he maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland. This reverence of St. Nicholas by the Dutch resulted in his making a first appearance in North American popular culture towards the end of the eighteenth century, when a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch New York families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.

In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. The background of the engraving contains now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace.

The name Santa Claus evolved from Saint Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinterklaas, which despite seeming like it might mean something else, is simply a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas. Even today, the Dutch depiction of Sinterkllass still maintains some of the religious iconography connected to his origin. According to legend, Sinterklass travels from his home in Spain every year to Holland on November 5th, and goes back to spain on December 6th. While in town, he rides across the rooftops on his white horse with (racially insensitive?) sidekicks named “Black Petes”, to drop presents down the chimneys of all well-behaved children. Children who have been bad will be spanked and put into a burlap sack to be taken back to Spain.

"The Good Saint" (an illustration by Rie Cramer) shows the common image of Duth Sinterklass

“The Good Saint” (an illustration by Rie Cramer) shows the common image of Dutch Sinterklass

In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinterklaas stories in America when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. However, it was a poem believed to have been written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, that would be the biggest influence on the modern image of Santa Claus. The long Christmas poem, said to have been written for his three daughters was originally titled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” The poem would later be renamed “Twas The Night Before Christmas” and it described Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf” with a heavyset physique, and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head! Although Moore likely borrowed some of his ideas from other sources, his poem helped to popularize Christmas Eve as we now know it. This was the first time we were to see a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve – in “a miniature sleigh” led by eight flying reindeer, whom he also named – leaving presents for deserving children and in this depiction Moore created an immediately popular American icon. It was also around this time that retail stores began to promote the phenomenon of Christmas shopping.


Santa Claus, his miniature sleigh and his eight reindeer.

in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of the newly popular Santa Claus. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. It was only a matter of time before stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a “live” Santa Claus. This would lead, eventually to the introduction of the still popular “Mall Santa.”

In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the first image of Santa Claus resembling that which is popular today. His drawing was published in Harper’s Weekly and it depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard. He carried a sack full of toys and a long pipe which he was often depicted smoking. Nast continued to draw Santa annually for Harper’s until 1886. His work had considerable influence in forming the look of the American Santa Claus.

Drawing by Thomas Nast, 1863

Drawing by Thomas Nast, 1863

Though Santa Claus was portrayed by dozens of artists in a wide variety of styles, sizes, and colors, by the end of the 1920’s a standard American Santa – life-sized in a red, fur-trimmed suit, emerged from the work of N. C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and other popular illustrators. In 1931 Haddon Sundblom began thirty-five years of Coca-Cola Santa Claus advertisements that popularized and firmly established this Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture, but contrary to popular belief they did not create the modern image of Santa Claus. The images are simply the most well known as they were produced and distributed in mass popular culture.

Santa's modern day image.

Santa’s modern day image.

18th-century America’s Santa Claus, though iconic, is not the only St. Nicholas-inspired gift-giver to make an appearance at Christmastime. Similar figures are popular all over the world.

  • Kris Kringle was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children.
  • In Scandinavia, a jolly elf named Jultomten was thought to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
  • English legend explains that Father Christmas visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill children’s stockings with holiday treats.
  • Pere Noel is responsible for filling the shoes of French children.
  • In Russia, it is believed that an elderly woman named Babouschka visits Russian children on January 5th leaving gifts at their bedsides in the hope that one of them is the baby Jesus and she will be forgiven for giving the three wise men false directions to Bethlehem.
  • In Italy, a similar story exists about a woman called La Befana, a kindly witch who rides a broomstick down the chimneys of Italian homes to deliver toys into the stockings of lucky children.

Whoever your holiday legend may be, we here at wish you the happiest of holidays, and we hope that even if you’ve been naughty this year that you get more than a lump of coal or a one-way ticket back to Spain with ol’ Sinterklass and his creepy, little friends!

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