From Saint Nick to Santa Claus

Baljot Rai ’24


It’s officially the Christmas season; the merriest time of the year. The holiday spirit is in the air, there’s a cheery vibe amongst the students, Mariah Carey’s Christmas songs are playing, and winter break and presents are on everyone’s minds. And nothing says Christmas more than the world-famous, Santa Claus. The fictional character of Father Christmas has a deep and long-winded history, dating back to the 3rd century. Allow me to take you on this journey, across the Pacific Sea and back in time. 

The year was 270 C.E. and in the small village of Patara, located in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), Nicholas of Myra was born. He was raised as a devout Christian by his affluent parents, until their death in an epidemic. While Nicholas was still young, he knew to obey Jesus’s instruction to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used the entirety of his inheritance for the betterment of society, and to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He became known throughout the land for his benevolence, his adoration for children, and most importantly, his devotion to God. At a young age, he was made Bishop of Myra, and there are many tales and legends about his greatness.

One of the most popular, tells the story of a poverty-stricken father, and his three daughters. In the days of St. Nicholas, a woman’s father would offer prospective husbands something of value – referred to as a dowry. The greater the dowry, the higher likeliness of a woman to marry a wealthy man, and without a dowry, it was nearly impracticable to marry. The poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were to be sold into enslavement, however, mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home, providing them with a dowry sufficient for even the greatest husband. These bags of gold are said to be tossed by St. Nicholas himself and were thrown through an open window, into stockings left by the fire to dry, or into empty shoes.

This is the origin of the tradition of hanging up stockings on a fireplace and is also the emergence of the belief of St. Nicholas being a gift-giver. Another popular tale of St. Nicholas shows him as being the saviour and protector of children. Long after his death, on the eve of his feast day, a group of pirates from Crete looted the Church of St. Nicholas, and abducted a young boy, by the name of Basilios, to enslave him. Basilios became the cupbearer of the ruler of Crete, as being unknowledgeable of the language, he could not comprehend the king’s conversations with others.

Basilios’ parents were devastated at the abduction of the son and spent the whole year in sorrow and grief. When St. Nicholas’ next feast came by, they chose to not join the festivities, but rather have a simple observance at home, for the grief was too much to tolerate. Meanwhile, on the same day, while Basilios was fulfilling his duties, and serving the king, he was whisked up, and taken away by the heavenly figure of St. Nicholas.

There, St. Nicholas appeared to Basilios, and blessed him, sending him back to his home in Myra. Seeing their son, still holding the king’s golden cup, Basilios’ parents were overjoyed, and this was the origination of St. Nicholas being the protector and patron of children. St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors and voyagers, for, during a pilgrimage to the Holy land, he saved a large crew of sailors from being victims of the shipwreck. The sailors, recognizing St. Nicholas as their patron, spread his greatness and glory all throughout Europe. His story, however, did not reach North America until the 18th century, the beginning of the revolutionization of St. Nicholas, into who we now know as Santa Claus. 

St. Nicholas first started to appear in American popular culture towards the end of the 18, 2021 century. In December 1773, and again, in December 1774, a New York newspaper reported the gathering of Dutch families to celebrate his feast day, which is on December 6, 2021. These articles reported his name to be “Sinter Klass”, a shortened form of the Dutch term used to refer to Saint Nicholas. As time passed, in 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of Saint Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. These woodcuts included engravings of the now-familiar Santa images, including stockings filled with toys and treats hung over a fireplace. The concept of Sinter Klaas was further popularized in 1809, when Washington Irving, an American author, referred to Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of New York, in his book, The History of New York.  

Due to the massive surge in popularity of “Sinter Klaas”, corporate companies decided to use this figure as a potential advertisement tool, to market their products. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in the 1820s, and by the 1840s, newspapers were consistently creating separate sections for holiday advertisements. The rejuvenation of the tradition of Christmas gift-giving occurred, and images of the newly popular “Sinter Klaas”, whose name eventually became anglicized into “Santa Claus”, were appearing everywhere. Since then, media, literature, and art have heavily influenced the development of Father Christmas’ character. One example includes Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister’s 1822 Christmas poem, titled “’’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

This poem depicted Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf”, with the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney a mere nod of his head! This poem also helped to popularize the depiction of Santa flying from house to house on Christmas Eve, led by eight flying reindeer, to leave presents for deserving children. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem and gave us our modern image of Santa Claus. In his image, Santa was depicted as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack full of toys for lucky and well-behaved children.

Nast is also attributed to giving Santa his bright red suit, trimmed with white fur, his North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus. Since then, Santa Claus has and continues to be an iconic figure used to represent this joyous holiday and will be celebrated for many decades to come!  

Photo Credit: Pasadena Weekly

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