What Is the Origin of Santa Claus?
The jolly old man with white whiskers who brings children toys in his sack at Christmas time had his origins in the popular St Nicholas (4th-5th Century A.D.), the patron saint of school-children and sailors. Little is known about the life of St Nicholas, but it is probable that he was bishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor). The earliest miracle attributed to him was the rescue of three army officers who were unjustly condemned to death but saved by St Nicholas’s appearance in a dream to Constantine I.
In the 17th century the Dutch Protestant settlers in New Amsterdam (now New York) replaced St Nicholas (known as Sinterklaas in Dutch) by a generous magician called Santa Claus. Gradually, this transformation spread to many countries in Europe, especially those where the Reformed church were dominant. The kind old man was also given the names of Father Christmas and Father January, and his special day became either December 25 or New Year’s Day.
Pre-modern representations of the gift-giver from Church history and folklore, notably St Nicholas merged with the English character Father Christmas to create the character known to Americans and the rest of the English-speaking world as “Santa Claus” (a phonetic derivation of “Sinterklaas”).
In the English and later British colonies of North America, and later in the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. For example, in Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into “Santa Claus” (a name first used in the American press in 1773) but lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. Irving’s book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention.
Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, joyous, white-bearded man—sometimes with spectacles—wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots and who carries a bag full of gifts for children. This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children’s books, films, and advertising.
Santa Claus is said to make lists of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior (“good” and “bad”, or “naughty” and “nice”) and to deliver presents, including toys, and candy to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and coal to all the misbehaved children, on the single night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of his elves, who make the toys in his workshop at the North Pole, and his flying reindeer, who pull his sleigh. He is commonly portrayed as living at the North Pole and saying “ho ho ho” often.