There is no more universal icon of Christmas than Santa Claus. This time of the year, you can’t go anywhere without seeing his picture, hearing a song on the radio about him or dodging the line of eager children waiting to sit on his lap to ask for gifts.
But where exactly did this symbol of good will and generosity come from?
The Santa Claus we know today was actually based on a real person, Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was born in the village of Patara (in what’s southern Turkey today). He was born into a wealthy family, but when he was still young, his parents passed away when an epidemic swept through their town. Rather than live comfortably off of the money he inherited, Nicholas gave all of his money to the poor and joined the church. He became a bishop at a young age and traveled the countryside, doing many good deeds.
There are numerous stories of his generosity in life. One story tells of a poor man who had three daughters. During this period in history, a father had to offer a dowry or payment to the family of the man who was to marry his daughter. Since the father had no money and three daughters, it was almost impossible for them to get married. If not for Saint Nicholas, the daughters would have been sold into slavery. They say that on three separate occasions bags of gold appeared in the poor man’s house, saving his daughters from lives in captivity.
Some stories even say that the bags of gold flew into the window, landing in the stockings or shoes the daughters had left by the fireplace to dry. This is where the tradition of hanging stockings from the mantle and filling them with presents comes from.
A picture from Knickerbocker's History of New York.
Throughout his life (and even after), Saint Nicholas went on to perform many selfless deeds and came to be known as the protector of children. Another story is told about a boy, named Basilios, who was kidnapped by pirates who raided his village on the feast day for Saint Nicholas (December 6th, in case you were wondering). Basilios was sold into slavery and became the cup-bearer of the king, serving his wine is a golden chalice. Then, a year after his capture, it is said that Saint Nicholas appeared to Basilios and stole him away from the king, bringing him back to his family safe and sound with the golden cup in hand.
There are countless other stories about Saint Nicholas and his deeds. This patron saint of children was well-loved in Germany and traveled west with them when they moved to America. It wasn’t until 1809 that he began
Alexander Anderson's St. Nickolas.
the transformation into the gift-giving elf we all know and love. In his book Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving makes numerous mentions of a Dutch elf who gave out presents. Later, the artist Alexander Anderson was commissioned to paint a picture of Saint Nicholas for the New York Historical Society when it had its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner in 1810.
From then on, Saint Nicholas continued gathering momentum. In 1821, the book Children’s Friend was anonymously published, providing the first visual reference of Nicholas not as a saint, but as “Santa Claus.” Two years later, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the most famous poem about Santa Claus – one that is still told today - The Night Before Christmas.
Perhaps the greatest influence on the modern-day Santa was Thomas Nast. Every year from 1863 to 1886, Nast submitted black-and-white drawings of Santa Claus to Harper’s Weekly. From him, we have the Santa with the long, white beard and round belly, giving children gifts for Christmas.
The images of both Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas have undergone some amazing changes over the years, but the significant messages they send has stayed the same: generosity, caring for others and selflessness. So while you’re gathered around your Christmas tree, take a second to think about how lucky you are to have a warm home and loving family around you, and be sure to pass the happiness on to someone else.
Some of Thomas Nast's pictures of Santa Claus.