The story of Santa Claus goes back to the third century. The mythology of Saint Nicholas is the precursor of the story of Santa Claus, both in terms of his general character and behaviour and especially one particular narrative.
Nicholas was born in AD 245 in Patara, an important Byzantine port in Turkey, two hours sailing from Gemiler. His father died when he was a young man and left the family a fortune, which Nicholas tried his best to give away over time, donating anonymously to the needy, and especially children.
Eventually Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra (derived from ‘myrrh’ to give another Christmas link) close to the Bey Daglari mountains. His legend references several miracles, including saving sailors from drowning and resurrecting three boys who had been killed by an evil butcher. The most famous story about Saint Nicholas is why he is now embodied in the figure of Santa Claus.
A nobleman and his three daughters fell on hard times, with the daughters having little chance of marriage as their father no longer had the money to pay their dowries. When Nicholas heard about their plight, he went out one night and threw a sack of gold through the window of the nobleman’s shabby castle to pay for the first daughter’s wedding dowry. On a second night he did the same for the second daughter. And on a third night the window was closed, but Nicholas was unperturbed and dropped a sack of gold down the nobleman’s chimney for his youngest daughter.
People in the town heard the story (they didn’t know who was responsible) and started hanging stockings by their fireplace at night to collect any gold that might happen to fall down their chimneys.
Saint Nicholas is believed to have died on 6 December in AD 343 at Gemiler a tiny island off Turkey (known by medieval Venetian sailors as san Nicolo). It became the site of a grand holy city for the patron saint of children, sailors, teachers, students and merchants, as his legend grew. The earliest Byzantine portraits show him with a long white beard (he was 98 if the legends are to be believed) and when the refomed church spread through Europe he became linked with Christmas because his feast day became 6thDecember.
By the twelfth century, St Nicholas was the most powerful saint on the church’s calendar. His stories had circulated throughout the Mediterranean. Perhaps one of the reasons is that he was one of the very few saints venerated for his “constant and singularly unselfish kindness in everyday life” and not through being martyred. His fame increased further after his relics were violently kidnapped in 1087.
Although Protestant reformers abolished saint days in the sixteenth century, his place as a gift bringer was taken by the Christ Child (Christkindl), talked about even by Martin Luther (although gift giving was pushed back to the New Year in many countries). However, St Nicholas survived in many towns and cities as can be seen in Jan Steen’s painting The Feast of Saint Nicholas (1665-1668).
Saint Nicholas became known locally as Sinterklaas (often associated with a servant Black Pete) who arrived on a white (or grey) horse, wore bishop’s robes, and came down chimneys to fill the shoes of good children with presents (or leave a birch rod for those who had been bad). This figure moved to New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century and in New York slang became Santiclaus, losing his servant.
In 1773 a New York newspaper referred to him as “otherwise called St. a Claus” and Santa Claus was then mentioned in the “Knickerbocker History” written by Washington Irving in 1809. A year later he was depicted as a stern, haloed bishop alongside a home scene on 6 December and mentioned in a poem as a “good holy man” who brought holiday gifts.
In 1821, the poem The Children’s Friend introduced the world to Santa Claus (and his connection with Northern Europe) with a reindeer and sleigh and a new delivery schedule on Christmas Eve. He now had a smile and a tall fur hat.
The following year the famous poem A Visit from St Nicholas was written and was published anonymously one year later. This is often known by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas” and is the best-known poem in English. The poem had a huge impact on Christmas traditions, including Santa Claus and gift giving, and was frequently reprinted, although only attributed to Clement Clarke Moore in 1837.
It portrays the snug, family-centred holiday that Christmas has become, with eight reindeer (it was previously just one). His reindeer had names too: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. The original names of Dunder and Blixem came from a Dutch expression for “thunder and lightning” and eventually became Donder (or Donner) and Blixen.
Santa Claus’ appearance beccame more unusual and less bishop-like, “dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot” and covered in ashes and soot (an idea that comes from rougher German gift-bringers brought by German immigrants to Baltimore and Pennsylvania). As a character he was working-class in appearance and behaviour such as smoking a pipe and descending the chimney.
The first oil painting of Saint Nicholas was by Robert Weir in 1837 entitled Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas. Modern imagery of Santa Claus started with Thomas Nast who drew versions of him from 1863 on, long before Coca-Cola entered the scene in the 1930s. The red robes are a tradition from Sinterklaas and probably reference the red robes of bishops in St Nicholas’s time. Thomas Nast published a collection of Christmas drawings in 1889, showing a more standardized, stout and jolly Santa Claus clad in garments of fur and fur trim with a red and white motif.
The appearance of Santa Claus settled down in the early twentieth century with a beard and hooded fur-trimmed coat. In a 1920 story he is described as, “an old man in a scarlet robe, with a long white beard and the kindest face in the world”.
Coca-Cola’s adverts only started to show Santa Claus in 1931, with Haddon Sundblom painting a version every year until the 1950s. Although this is now the established version of Santa, without the religious associations, Coca-Cola were not the first to depict him this way. As well as an ample red coat, trimmed in white, he eventually added a hat and removed his pipe. The beard, girth and rosy cheeks remained.
Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, “Father Christmas is dressed in scarlet: he is a king. His white beard, his furs and boots, the sleigh in which he travels evoke winter. He is called “Father” and he is an old man, thus he incarnates the benevolent form of the authority of the ancients.” Levi-Strauss says that children pay homage to him and write him letters while adults do not, and thus he expresses the difference between little children and adolescents and adults.
Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus have always been the patron saints of children, whatever their age. Whether or not you agree with Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” and whatever your age, have a very happy Christmas!
The Battle for Christmas: A cultural history of America’s most cherished holiday by Stephen Nissenbaum
Can Reindeer Fly?: The science of Christmas by Roger Highfield
Santa Claus: A biography by Gerry Bowler
Unwrapping Christmas by Levi-Strauss