The Real History of Santa Claus

Santa Claus giving a treat to his reindeer

Santa Claus giving a treat to his reindeer outside his house
For years, Santa Claus has been busy “making his list and checking it twice,” but the man in the red suit has come a long way from his humble beginnings to the Santa the world knows and loves today.

The first known representation of Santa dates back to the 3rd century, with an early Christian Greek bishop named Saint Nicholas. The monk lived in the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor (what is now modern-day Turkey), traveling the countryside, giving money and good cheer to the poor and sick. Stories of his generosity and care for the underprivileged grew, and he was christened the patron saint of children and sailors.

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas was known as Sinterklaas – represented as a tall man with a white beard who would leave gifts for nice children and lumps of coal for naughty ones.

As the legend spread to North America, Washington Irving was the first to introduce Santa Claus in a flying vehicle (although not a sleigh). In his satirical work “A History of New York,” Irving writes about Saint Nicholas as a rather large Dutchman who flew a wagon over the city to drop gifts down chimneys. In 1823, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the famous poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” also known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” that introduced Santa’s sleigh and the eight tiny reindeer who pull it.

Forty years later, the Civil War-era cartoonist, Thomas Nast, imagined Saint Nicholas as the rotund, jolly character of modern times. Drawing on Moore’s descriptive poem, Nast created an image of Santa Claus that featured the red suit, white beard, rosy cheeks, and all. While his drawings were rife with hidden political meaning and war propaganda, they also served as a sentiment of the greater good in the world that still stands today.

The "Merry Old Santa Claus" portrait created by cartoonist Thomas Nast
The “Merry Old Santa Claus” portrait by Thomas Nast – The 1880s illustration that is famous today for cementing Santa’s image, was actually another form of propaganda

As the story of Santa Claus gained popularity in North America, thanks to writers and artists like Moore and Nast, the Soviet Union (under communist control), abolished the celebration of Christmas and figures like Saint Nicholas. Later, Stalin allowed citizens to celebrate the holiday again as a means of garnering support, and Russians quickly embraced the legend of Saint Nicholas once more.

Once relegated to a once-a-year appearance, Santas can now be found in virtually every mall and department store. James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts was the first to employ a department store Santa. He said of his idea to bring Kris Kringle to visit children at his store, “I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole. He is so far away… only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.” Edgar featured Santa in his dry goods store in 1890, and the idea soon caught on, with store owners all over the country calling up Santa impersonators to delight the children of their patrons.

Although there is much controversy about the commercialization of Christmas, the legend of Saint Nicholas is rooted in the true meaning of the holiday season: peace on Earth and goodwill to men. As long as there are children to believe, the spirit of the jolly old elf will live on.