Every child in the western world can tell you who he is, but the history of the Santa Claus is one of variation from culture to culture. Ranging all the way back to the 4th century, Saint Nicholas has been shaped through mythological, religious, and cultural influences. Anyone who celebrates the holiday can tell you of the man who has helped shape their traditions and who has contributed to the spirit of the season.
The history of the Santa Claus starts with the story of Saint Nicholas. The Greek Christian bishop and patron saint of sailors was well known for his gift giving to the poor. Most notably a story where he gifted a man with three daughters a dowry for each in order to save them from a life of prostitution. During the middle ages, people honored his legacy by giving children gifts on December 6th, St. Nicholas’s Day.
Saint Nicholas has since been influenced by folklore and religion to become the recognizable jolly, gift-giver most children have come to know today. Before the Christianization of Germanic Europe, many pagans traditionally celebrated Yule, and from this celebration is where many traditions of modern Christmas originate. The idea of Father Christmas was born during this time. A popular story was told during the celebration. A tale of an Odin-like figure who was cloaked, bearded, and riding through the sky on a horse would give gifts to children. This figure joined St. Nicolas as a key figure to the history of the Santa Claus.
Since the middle ages, many cultures have adapted their own version of the holiday figure. During the Victorian era in England, Father Christmas began to be characterized with the spirit of good will, peace, feasting and merriment in folk tales and published literature. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and his helper Zwarte Piet are responsible for supplying the country with gifts throughout the month of December. France dedicates the holiday spirit to Pere Noel. All of which have helped contribute to the American version of Santa.
The adaptation of the history the Santa Claus stems from popular culture in North America. Literature, music, movies, and commercialism have helped shape the legend of the merry, bearded man in a red suit. The 1823 poem “A Visit for St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, more commonly known as “The Night before Christmas,” depicts the yearly sleigh ride that ends with a man sliding down a chimney with a bag full of toys. It also initiates the popular notion of reindeers guiding the sleigh. In the 1930’s, Coca-Cola used a depiction of the character to help boost sales of its product, and in the early 20th Century the Salvation Army used the image to associate the character with the qualities of charity and philanthropy. Songs like “Santa Claus is coming to Town” has helped parents convince children that the man keeps a list of who is naughty or nice. Movies have also helped craft the characters of Mrs. Claus, Rudolph the red nosed reindeer and the workshop elves, which are as much a part of the traditions as the man with the twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks.
Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, or whatever title he is bestowed, the history the of Santa Claus is a rich one full of merriment and joy.