Santa Claus is top-of-mind for most people this time of year. Many books, movies and stories surround the character of Santa Claus also known as St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas and so many more. But how much do you know about the origin of December’s most popular man?
The Real Saint Nicholas
The actual Saint Nicholas was a real person born in Patara, a town that existed in what is now the southern coast of Turkey near Myra, during the 3rd century AD. Nicholas’s parents passed away when he was young and left him with a large inheritance. He spent his entire life using this inheritance to help those in need and became a church bishop at a young age. Nicholas was revered for generations after his death, and legends of his kindness and generosity are the basis for the Santa Claus we know today.
Father Christmas is a character that appeared during the 17th century in England. Continuing into the 19th century, Father Christmas was the personification of Christmas during a time period when religious and political groups disagreed with holiday festivities. During the 1800’s, Father Christmas became known as a much more joyful character that celebrated the season and was often surrounded in pictures by food and drinks. Father Christmas was characterized as a happy, jolly man, often depicted wearing a fur gown and holly wreath that eventually became known for giving gifts during the Victorian era. Some of Father Christmas’s attributes were believed to influence the character we know as Santa Claus today, including his fur lined robes (though Father Christmas’s were green, not red) and his celebratory nature. He is still part of the United Kingdom’s annual festivities.
Santa Claus Comes to America
Saint Nicholas was popular all over Europe, but was especially beloved to the Dutch. As they immigrated to New Amsterdam (now New York), they brought traditional customs with them, including giving gifts and sweets to children in December. “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch “Sinter Klaas,” the shortened version of “Sint Nikolaas.”
Over time, more of the attributes we associate with Santa were developed. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas written in 1822 by Clement Clark Moore, popularized several characteristics we associate with Santa, including the ability to travel via chimney. His traditional red suit and appearance became more embedded in US culture through famous cartoons of Thomas Nast during the late 1800’s. The first department store Santa was portrayed in 1890 by Scottish immigrant and businessman James Edgar in Brockton, MA, based on Nast’s images. Songs, films, art, and more have continued to embed Santa Claus in the US and around the world.
There is an abundance of information about Santa Claus! He goes by different names and has different traditions all over the world. This was just a small sample of the information out there! If you’re interested in learning more about the topics discussed here, I’ve included a link to the resources available in our collection as well as online resources. Happy Santa season!
BCPL Nonfiction Santa collection
National Geographic – Santa Claus history
Smithsonian – Thomas Nast Cartoons
British Broadcasting Corporation – Santa Claus in America
The History Channel – History of Santa Claus and Santa Around the World
Nicholas Center – History of Real St. Nicholas
Library of Congress – Father Christmas
Britannica Library – History of Santa Claus
Kelsey Shackelford is the Community Events Liaison for Boone County Public Library.