In modern America, Santa Claus is the most central figure for Christmas — moreso, even, than the very man whose birth Christmas celebrates, Jesus Christ. That chafes Christians, of course; after all, Christmas is a deeply religious holiday with deep religious roots. And, yet, Christians celebrate Santa just as they do the baby Jesus, helping to elevate the jolly old elf to front and center of Christmas traditions.
There are those who would argue — perhaps in an effort to defend his central importance to the Christmas holiday — that Santa is an inherently religious figure. That’s a stretch, at best, but it is true that Santa has Christian roots. It’s just that the Santa how kids anxiously await each Christmas Eve was never intended to have religious elements, but was created as a myth in 19th century America.
Saint Nicholas to Sinterklaas
The origins of Santa Claus can be traced all the way back to the 3rd century. In March 270, Nicholas of Bari was born in Myra, a maritime city in Asia Minor that is part of modern-day Turkey. He would become an important figure in the Roman Catholic Church. Miracles were attributed to him — so many so that he became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, and many others. His gift-giving was legendary, and he was especially well-known for providing a dowry for three girls who had been sold into prostitution by their poor father, so that they could be married.
Not much is known about the life of Nicholas of Bari, except that he was apparently born to wealthy Greek parents, and that he was ordained as a priest by his uncle, who was the bishop in Myra. After his parents died, Saint Nicholas apparently distributed much of their wealth among the poor — including the three girls who appeared destined for a life of prostitution.
Saint Nicholas died in 343 A.D., and remained an important and almost larger-than-life figure in the Eastern Orthodox Church for centuries. A feast day was celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. He remained an almost larger-than-life figure all the way through the Renaissance more than 1,000 years later.
Even after the Protestant Reformation, which ushered in the modern era of Christianity, Saint Nicholas survived as an important figure within the church, even as the importance of other saints diminished with the decline of Catholicism. Eventually, his legend gave rise to Sinterklaas, a forerunner of Santa Claus in many parts of Europe. In places such as The Netherlands, Belgium, the former Dutch Empire and parts of northern France, St. Nicholas Day is still celebrated on December 6, with the tradition of gift-giving on December 5, St. Nicholas’ Eve.
Sinterklaas traditionally rides a white horse, is dressed in a red cape with a flowing white beard, and delivers gifts to well-behaved children through their chimney by night.
The tradition of Sinterklaas took a hit during the reformation period. Protestants rebelled against veneration of the saints, and the noted reformer Martin Luther played a leading role in the tradition of gift-giving being moved from December 6 to Christmas Eve, to be associated with Jesus Christ rather than St. Nicholas. Later protestants, including the Calvinists who subscribed to the teachings of John Calvin, prohibited the celebrations of Sinterklaas altogether.
But the legend persisted.
It was in the United States where the legend of Santa Claus truly took root and the mythical figure as we know him today was created. That was in the early 19th century.
In the 1770s, just years before the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, Dutch families who had migrated to New England began celebrating St. Nicholas on the date of his death, December 6. About 30 years later, a member of the New York Historical Society distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. The background included images of stockings filled with toys and fruit and hung over a fireplace.
In 1809, a young writer named Washington Irving penned the satirical History of New York, in which he referred to Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of New York. At that point, Irving was still 10 years away from writing his most famous works, “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” But he had just revolutionized the way Americans celebrated Christmas. He depicted St. Nicholas as dropping gifts down chimneys from a flying wagon. The legend of Santa Claus had just been born.
Irving, of course, would go on to become one of the most influential 19th century American writers. He gave New York its nickname “Gotham,” and coined the phrase “the almighty dollar.” As if creating Santa Claus wasn’t enough …
In 1823, another New York writer — Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore — further cemented Santa Claus as a popular figure in America’s Christmas traditions when he wrote a poem entitled “An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas.” He first published the poem anonymously (some say Moore didn’t write it at all), and he was the first to describe Santa as riding in a miniature sleigh that was pulled by eight tiny reindeer. Today, we know Moore’s poem by the first line of its first stanza: “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” And it caused the practice of gift-giving at Christmas to explode in popularity in America.
An image is created
Thanks to Clement Clarke Moore and Washington Irving, Santa Claus was very much a popular figure in the 19th century United States. But he was still a legend that was largely without an image; his appearance was left largely to the imagination, and he was described in a lot of different ways.
That changed during the Civil War, when cartoonist Thomas Nast published a series of drawings in Harper’s Weekly, which portrayed St. Nicholas as a rotund and jolly old soul. Some years later, it was Nast who suggested that Santa lived at the North Pole rather than in Europe. Nast was also responsible for creating Santa’s bright red suit, his elf helpers, and Mrs. Claus.
By that time, Santa Claus had already begun appearing in American shops, used as a marketing figure at Christmas by shopkeepers. In the 1890s, the Salvation Army began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations for the free Christmas meals they provided to needy families. That, of course, gave rise to another tradition: the ringing of bells at store entrances and on street corners. Santa Claus first appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924, and 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” further cemented Santa’s legend in American culture.
The legend of Santa has always held that he delivers gifts to well-behaved children, borrowed from the earliest traditions of Sinterklaas, and that myth was immortalized in 1394 when a Christmas song was recorded by banjoist Harry Reser. Written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” tells the story of Santa “making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”
Finally, Rudolph — the red-nosed reindeer — was introduced to the story in 1939 by Robert L. May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward department store. He wrote a poem to help drive traffic to the store, and told the story of a young reindeer who was teased by the other deer because of his large, glowing nose — until one foggy Christmas Eve when Santa needed his help and Rudolph saved Christmas. The story was a smash hit, and sold millions of copies in two printings. (It was another 10 years before one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks, wrote a song about the story that was recorded by Gene Autry and sold over two million copies.)
While Santa Claus was taking root in America, other parts of the world maintained different traditions — but usually in much the same vein as Santa. There was Kris Kringle in Germany, Jultomten in Scandinavia (delivering gifts from a sleigh drawn by goats), Father Christmas in England, and Pere Noel in France.
One of the more unique customs was born in Russia, where legend has it that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the Wise Men the wrong directions so that they couldn’t find Jesus in Bethlehem. Later, she felt bad for what she had done, but she was unable to locate the men to correct the directions. So, to this day, on January 5, Babouschka visits Russian children to leave gifts by their bedsides in hope that one of them is the baby Jesus and she will be forgiven.
Not really religious
So while St. Nicholas, the Ancient Greek monk, was very much a religious figure, the traditions that he inspired really have very little to do with religion at all. St. Nicholas was a larger-than-life figure because of the various good deeds and miracles he supposedly reformed, and the Dutch-created Sinterklaas (an easier way to spell Saint Nicholas) was largely a religious figure in a largely religious celebration.
Today, the primary focus of Saint Nicholas-turned Sinterklaas-turned Santa Claus, is still chiefly a Christian one: the giving of gifts. The birth of Jesus was the ultimate gift to mankind, and the spirit of giving was immortalized by the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts, his farewell to the Ephesians: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”
And, yet, Santa Claus evolved not as a religious figure at all, but as a distinctly secular figure with faint Christian roots.
Washington Irving was not ministering when he satirically referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in the early 1800s. And while Clement Clark Moore was an Episcopalian minister, it seems a far stretch to imply that he had religious intent when he wrote ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas for his three daughters (in fact, it has been written that he published it anonymously because he considered the storyline to be frivolous; later, his friend sent it to a newspaper to be published, and his children encouraged him to take ownership of it as its popularity soared). Nor did the cartoonist Thomas Nast have any intent of furthering the message of the gospels when he rendered his illustrations that would provide Santa with the imagery that we continue to associate with him today.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that Santa Claus emerged as one of the most central figures in America’s customary celebrations of Christmas — because he’s symbolic of what the holiday has become in more ways than one: religious roots that have become largely lost as new symbolism and customs emerged in America.