The Origins of Santa Claus
We have all grown up with Santa Claus as the bearer of gift during Christmas. As kids, the big, jolly man, dressed in red, riding on his sleigh, had made the end of the year so special.
But how did he come into being?
Was he always believed to be the bearer of gifts and was he always portrayed as a fat man dressed in red?
The answer is No.
Here is a little peak into the origins of Santa Claus and how he came to be portrayed in his present avatar.
It all started in 4th century AD.
According to tradition, St Nicholas was born in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara (then a part of Roman Empire, today in Turkey) in the 4th century AD. When young, he traveled to Palestine and Egypt and was also called Nicholas of Bari or Nicholas of Myra.
Nicholas’s reputation for generosity and kindness to a multitude of people made him a patron saint of children, sailors, unmarried girls and many more. These, with time, gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. Two of these stories are considered to be most important in his being considered the patron saint of children.
The first one is that he gave marriage dowries (which were then very common) to three girls who were so poor that without his help, they would have gone into a life of poverty and prostitution.
The second one is about an inn-keeper who had killed three boys and pickled their bodies in barrels in his basement. St Nicholas not only sensed the crime but also resurrected the victims. This sealed him as the patron saint of children.
Till 1500 AD, St Nicholas was the bringer of gifts for children and celebrations were done on his feast day on December 6.
During the protestant reformation in the 1500s, most saints, including St Nicholas fell out of favor. However, parents wanted to give their children gifts and also give a reason for their good behavior. They therefore came up with scary versions like Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas) who were said to make children suffer if they did not behave well.
In the Netherlands, however, the tradition of St Nicholas, whom they called Sinterklaas, as the gift bringer remained intact.
Santa Claus in the USA
The Dutch brought their tradition with them when they came to New World colonies and Sinterklaas to the American accent became Santa Claus. This Santa Claus still wasn’t in the avatar that we know him today. It was only in the 19th century that Washington Irving’s 1809 book Knickerbocker’s History of New York first portrayed a pipe-smoking Nicholas soaring over the rooftops in a flying wagon, delivering presents to good girls and boys and switches to bad ones.
In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known today as “The Night Before Christmas,” for his six children. This described the plump, jolly Santa riding a sleigh driven by eight familiar reindeer.
Even then, the image of Santa was different across different places, some showing him with elf like ears, some showed him dressed in green and so on.
The jolly, chubby, grandfatherly face of this Santa was largely created by Thomas Nast, the great political cartoonist. His drawings, based on the Moore’s poem, established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. Nast’s Santa supported the Union and President Lincoln believed this contributed to the Union troops’ success by demoralizing Confederate soldiers.
Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s.
As Christmas moved from being a rowdy alcohol-fueled celebration to a family-focused one, the gift bearer also moved to Christmas Eve. In many places Dec 6 is still the day for giving gifts from St Nicholas while in others Santa Claus is shown as the bearer of gifts on Christmas Eve. Whatever the day be, it is a wonderful time to be thankful and celebrate with the entire family.
Merry Christmas to All!
May Santa Claus bring loads of gifts for your family this year.