St. Nicholas to Santa Claus – a History of Father Christmas

Baljot Rai ’24

Religion & Deputy Editor

It is 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, and Winter Break and presents are on everyone’s minds. However, nothing says Christmas more than the world-famous Santa Claus! The character of Father Christmas has a deep and long-winded history dating back to the 3rd century AD. Allow me to take you on this journey across the Atlantic Ocean and back in time!

The year was 270 AD and in the small village of Patara, located in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), Nicholas was born, whom we now refer to as St. Nicholas. He was raised as a devout Christian by his affluent parents who died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying 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 impossible 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 have been 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 source of the belief that St. Nicholas was 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 named Basilios to enslave him. Basilios became the cupbearer of the ruler of Crete, since he did not know the language and therefore could not understand the king’s conversations. Basilios’s parents were devastated at the abduction of their son and spent the whole year in sorrow and grief. When St. Nicholas’s 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. Then, St. Nicholas appeared to Basilios and blessed him, sending him back to his home in Myra. Upon seeing their son, still holding the king’s golden cup, Basilios’s parents were overjoyed, and this was the origin of St. Nicholas being the protector and patron of children.

St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors and voyagers. During a pilgrimage to the Holy land, he saved a large crew of sailors from being victims of 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 evolution 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 18th century. In December 1773 and again in December 1774, a New York newspaper reported the gathering of Dutch families to celebrate his feast day on December 6. These articles reported his name to be “Sinterklaas,” 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 Sinterklaas 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 “Sinterklaas,” 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 “Sinterklaas,” whose name eventually became anglicised into “Santa Claus,” were appearing everywhere. Since then, media, literature, and art have heavily influenced the development of Father Christmas’s character.

One example is Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 Christmas poem titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” This poem depicted Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf ” with the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney at 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, and holding a sack full of toys for lucky and well-behaved children. Nast is also attributed with 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 been and continues to be an iconic figure used to represent this joyous holiday and will be celebrated for many decades to come!

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