Today’s image of a plump, pink-cheeked old man named Santa who resides somewhere in the North Pole and brings gifts to all good children across the world on his sled has radically different beginnings.
Santa Claus started as a man named Nicholas, born in the year 270 to a wealthy family in the Greek city of Patara (today in modern Turkey). Nicholas’ parents died and left him a huge inheritance, which he used to help the needy.
In addition to giving gifts to poor children, he was also said to provide dowries to unmarried girls.
His most famous deed was providing a dowry in the form of gold (either coins or balls) to three women whose father had fallen on hard times. Without a dowry the women may have had to become slaves or prostitutes, but Nicholas threw the gold down the chimney or through a window, leading to the tradition of pinning up stockings to catch any gold Nicholas might throw.
A devout Christian, Nicholas became the bishop of Myra and was persecuted for his beliefs.
During a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by sea, legend has it he saved the boat during a storm and Nicholas became the patron saint to seafarers.
Tradition has it that he died on December 6 in about 350. His “name day” is celebrated by Orthodox Christians on this day but his legacy and legend led to the contemporary image we know and love as Santa Claus, a central focus of Western countries during Christmas.
Many cities also adopted him as their patron saint, among them Amsterdam which relied on sea trade.
The Dutch associated St Nicholas, who they called Sinterklaas, with gift giving around Christmas, depicting him as a wise-looking man with a long white beard wearing a red bishop’s robe.
When the Dutch emigrated to the New World and founded New Amsterdam, later New York, the images of a saintly bishop blended with images of a mysterious figure from British folklore known as Father Christmas.
Newspaper reports as early as 1773 detail the Dutch custom of celebrating the saint in American colonies.
Multiculturalism in the New World— people coming together from different traditions— eventually transformed the Dutch Sinterklaas to Santa Claus in early America.
By the early 19th century, the tradition had taken root in the United States. Santa Claus would leave toys and fruits for children who hung stockings atop their mantle, but the image and tradition of Santa still varied by culture and household.
Iconic poets of the time like Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast would further seal the image of Santa Claus in American folklore.
In 1809, Irving wrote of a pipe-smoking St. Nicholas in his popular book “Knickerbocker’s History of New York,” which detailed Santa delivering presents to good children.
Moore was an Episcopal minister, professor and writer from New York. In 1822, he penned a poem titled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” which has since been transformed to “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Moore’s poem is credited with establishing a uniform image of St. Nicholas as a “jolly old elf” and the Santa Claus we know today.
Illustrators like Norman Rockwell helped put a face and body of this image of the Santa Claus we know today, whose roots go way back to that generous, gift-giving Greek saint named Nicholas.
Image: Bicci di Lorenzo’s 1433-1435 painting depicting the legend of Saint Nicholas providing the three women with gold dowries. From the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.