Origins of Santa Claus

Origins of Santa Claus


Why Does Santa Come Down the Chimney? Here's the Origin Story

Here's how history and folklore gave us our chimney climbing Claus.

There's a certain magic that surrounds Santa Claus. He rides in a sleigh led by reindeer, he makes toys at his workshop in the North Pole with the help of elves, and he comes down the chimney to deliver gifts to good children. But why does Santa come down the chimney to leave those presents instead of using simpler means, like the door? We went back more than 500 hundred years in history to find out.

The legend of Santa Claus, who's based on the Christian bishop Saint Nicholas, dates back centuries, but the modern depiction of Santa—chimney and all—started to take form in the 19th century. Specifically, our current Santa came to life courtesy of Washington Irving. In his 1809 book Knickerbocker's History of New York, the U.S. writer and historian describes Saint Nicholas as a man who is seen "riding jollily among the tree tops, or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites."

But Irving didn't get the idea to have Santa drop gifts down chimneys out of thin air. The concept that magical creatures enter homes through chimneys actually comes from the 1400s, when there was a widespread belief—and fear—that witches could pass through solid objects to enter any residence, according to Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of Witchcraft in the Middle Ages.

In 1486, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger wrote Malleus Maleficarum, which is considered to be one of the most thorough books on witchcraft. To help ease the public's anxiety, Kramer and Sprenger wrote that witches instead entered houses through chimneys or windows.

Since then, the chimney has become a common symbol within European folklore, linking the earthly world with the supernatural. In Scottish legend, the brownie is a creature who enters through the chimney and aids in household chores while families are sleeping. In Irish lore, there's the bodach, an evil creature who slips in through the chimney to kidnap children. And in Italian folklore, there's La Befana, who rides on a broomstick to deliver candy to good children, entering their homes through chimneys.

As stories were passed down over the centuries, it became common for mythical creatures to enter homes through the chimney—so Irving's decision to include Santa in the long list of chimney-climbing characters wasn't so unusual.

And it didn't take long for Irving's legend to stick—especially with the help of Clement C. Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (more commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"), which was inspired by Irving's book. "The stockings were hung by the chimney with care / In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there," Moore famously wrote of the jolly old figure we know and love today. And for more on the legend of Santa Claus, check out Why Santa Gives Naughty Kids a Lump of Coal on Christmas.


4 Noelle (2019)

Noelle is a Disney+ original movie that puts Santa's daughter in charge of things. The revelation here deals with the Santa inheritance pecking order. Noelle's brother, Nick, is supposed to take his dad's place when the older man passes on, and that's just the way it is.

Nick becomes overwhelmed with the expectations of the job and would rather be in yoga class. Noelle seizes the opportunity to take over Kris Kringle's duties and carves out a new place for herself at the North Pole.


Traditions of St. Nicholas Past and Present

In honor of St. Nicholas the gift giver, Christians began to celebrate December 6 (his feast day) by giving presents. The tradition developed over time. For good boys and girls, St. Nicholas would come in his red bishop’s robe and fill boots with gifts on the night of December 5. For bad boys and girls St. Nicholas was to be feared. In highly Catholic parts of Europe, St. Nicholas became a deterrent to erring young children. In Germany, he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht (farmhand Rupert) who threatened to eat misbehaving children. In Switzerland, St. Nicholas threatened to put wicked children in a sack and bring them back to the Black Forest. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas’s helper would tie them in a sack and bring them back to Spain. In parts of Austria, the priest, dressed up in Christmas garb, would visit the homes of naughty children and threaten them with rod-beatings.

Over time, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of nations like Russia and Greece, cities like Fribourg and Moscow, and of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers (the three gold balls hung outside pawn shops are symbolic of the three bags of gold).

Not surprisingly, the Reformers were less than friendly towards the traditions that had been built up around the saints. Luther rejected the saints’ days, believing they were built upon legends and superstitions (and a virulent strain of moralism we might add). In Germany, Luther replaced Saint Nicholas’ Day with a different holiday, Christ Child, or Christkindl. Ironically, Kriss Kringle which derived from Luther’s Christ Child holiday, has become just another name for St. Nicholas.

If you love Christmas with all the trappings of Santa Claus and stockings and presents, thank the Dutch. The Puritans had done away with St. Nicholas and banned Christmas altogether. But the Dutch held on to their tradition and brought it with them to the New World. In the Netherlands Sint Nicolaas was contracted to Sinterklaas. According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas rides a horse and is accompanied by his helper Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Many consider Black Pete a racist stereotype derived from slavery, although others claim he is black because he goes down the chimney and gets a face full of soot.

At any rate, it is easy to see how Sinterklaas evolved in America to Santa Claus. Santa Claus became the Santa we know in the United States only after the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written in 1823. Possibly the best-known verses ever written by an American, the poem has greatly influenced the tradition of Santa in the English-speaking world and beyond.

*Excerpt from "Who was St. Nicholas?" by Kevin DeYoung. Originally appeared at GospelCoalition.com, used by permission.


Science Santa History: The Origins of Santa Claus

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! We’ve discussed the date of Christmas and how it is (or rather isn’t) connected to the birth of Jesus, and when we talked about the origins of some of the most popular traditions connected to Christmas. But Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Santa Claus, this bearded jolly dwarf usually represented in green, blue or purple clothing. Nope, I’m not crazy – Santa Claus became the big red man we know and love today thanks to a company called Coca-Cola – but we’ll get on that just a little bit later.

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and simply “Santa”, is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children on the night before Christmas, December 24. However, way before he was Santa Claus, he was Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas and Christmas

Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra. He played a crucial role in early Christianity and was, by virtually all accounts, a very kindhearted man. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.

Things took a strange turn in 1087, when a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. Not long after that, the cult spread further North, until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshiped a pantheon led by Woden (Odin) –their chief god and the father of Thor, Baldur, and Tiw. Odin was usually wearing blue clothing.

Prior to Christianity, the Germanic people celebrated midwinter event called Yule. During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky thought to be led by Odin himself. However, something that had happened many times before happened once again: Christianity absorbed this tradition and made it its own. When this happened, the date of 25 December came in and took the traditional 6 December. Saint Nicholas left gifts in the socks or shoes, but Santa Claus would ultimately just leave them under the Christmas Tree – which wouldn’t become a custom for many centuries later though.

The appearance also changed from very strong and warrior like (Odin) to more jolly, bearded, and pleasant looking (Odin had just one eye, trading the other for a drink from the Well of Wisdom).

Santa Claus throughout Europe

In the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, Saint Nicholas (“Sinterklaas”, often called “De Goede Sint”—”The Good Saint”) was an elderly, serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and red clothes. This was however, the only area in which he was red.

Sinterklaas in 2007. Via Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, in England, they were celebrating Father Christmas since the 16th century – the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. In Scandinavia, a being in Nordic folklore called “Tomte” or “Nisse” started to deliver the Christmas presents. He was wearing grey clothes. In Eastern Europe, they mostly celebrated Saint Nicholas bringing gifts on the 6th of December (something still celebrated today in many countries, often in addition to Christmas). Other related figures in folklore include Mikulás (Hungary), the Yule Goat (Scandinavia), Olentzero (a Basque character), Befana (Italy), and many ore.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the world still hadn’t developed a unified idea of Santa Claus. In the mid 1800s, literature started playing a huge role in promoting ideas about Santa Claus. The book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published in New York. It contained Old Santeclaus, an anonymous poem describing an old man on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. The book was immensely popular for the time, and the ideas presented in it spread like wildfire. But most ideas about the modern Santa Claus came from an anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823.

The poem was later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The main ideas that were presented in the poem are: He (Saint Nick) rides a sleigh that lands on the roof, entering through the chimney, and has a bag full of toys. St. Nick is described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”, in spite of which the “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer” still indicate that he is physically diminutive. The reindeer were also given names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).

The Modern Santa Claus and Coca-Cola

Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom was an American Artist, most known for changing the face of Santa Claus, but also for making a cover illustration on the Playboy magazine, advertising Coca-Cola next to an almost naked, drawn, female character.

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. The campaign was so incredibly successful that many people actually thought that Coca-Cola had invented Santa Claus – which, in a way, was not that far from the truth. He stripped him of his small stature and green/blue/purple clothes and instead, made him a big, lovable, bearded man, dressing him in the company’s red and white colors. This is the Santa Claus almost all of us know today.

By the end of the 20th century, the merger of Saint Nicholas, Odin, and numerous cults and traditions from the entire Europe, developed by 19th century literature and ultimately shaped by an advertising campaign resulted in the jolly man we see today.

Santa Claus waves to children from an annual holiday train in Chicago. Via Wikipedia.


The Origins of Santa Claus: A Christmas Special

When you think of Christmas, most think of Santa Claus. Although the legendary character Santa is part of Christmas, it hasn’t always been like that. In fact, Santa Claus is the product of the merging of European folklore, Christian, and pagan traditions. And even nowadays there is discussion whether he lives in Finland, Greenland, or somewhere on the Northpole. Yet to find out about the origins of Santa Claus, we must go much farther south, and much further back in time.

So when, and how, did Santa become integral to the Christmas celebrations? And how is he portrayed in different cultures?

History of Santa Claus

Although Santa Claus originated in the United States during the late 18th century, he didn’t suddenly appear. In fact, the jolly white-bearded old man that we have come to know Santa as was inspired by several European folklore characters that were sometimes centuries older.

One of these legendary characters is Sinterklaas and the eponymous celebration that is still ingrained in Dutch culture to this day. With the colonisation of the American continent, many Dutchmen reached the New World to build up a new life. These Dutchmen took with them their traditions, and one of the most iconic traditions in the Netherlands is Sinterklaas. That doesn’t mean Dutch people don’t celebrate Christmas, in fact, they celebrate both during December. It makes for a quite cosy, but expensive month.

So what are the origin stories of Sinterklaas, and how did he become the inspiration for Santa Claus? Well, Sinterklaas originated in Medieval Northern Europe. The celebrations were based on Saint Nicholas, a Greek Bishop of Myra, present-day Turkey, that mainly lived during the 4th century. The name day of Saint Nicholas was on December 6, with annual celebrations occurring on the evening of December 5, with family get-togethers and exchanges of gifts. Saint Nicholas was known for his, often anonymous, charity, such as giving money to the poor. Over time this changed to parents giving gifts to children that “had behaved well” throughout the year. After centuries of celebrating this tradition, many things changed and were added. Saint Nicholas now owns a horse, Amerigo, with whom he walks over roofs. Another is his arrival from Spain, instead of the actual place Saint Nicholas lived, namely Turkey. Yet the way he dressed and appeared remained mostly the same: to this day he still wears a red mitre, bishops robes and sports a long, white beard. So we can already distil some aspects which inspired modern-day Santa Claus.

Yet there was one problem with Saint Nicholas if you look at the trajectory of European history: he was a Catholic saint. During the reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholic celebrations were banned from large parts of northern Europe that embraced the reformation, including the Dutch Republic. Although Sinterklaas was, in theory, prohibited, private celebrations continued. A perfect example is Jan Steen’s late 17th-century painting ‘The Feast of Saint Nicholas’, clearly indicating at that time it was still celebrated in household circles. Yet sources also suggest that in Calvinist territories of the Holy Roman Empire, the celebrations were simply moved to Christmas Eve instead of December 5. As such, these celebrations slowly started to merge with Christmas celebrations already.

Subsequently, during the 17th century in England, the mythical figure of Father Christmas came to be. Just like Sinterklaas, Father Christmas was an old man with a long white beard, handing out presents to children that had behaved well. Yet in contrast to Sinterklaas, he resided on the North Pole, and wasn’t a stern old man but a jolly one. The next couple of decades this character spread to France as Père Noël and Spain as Papá Noel.

Having looked at the traditions of Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, it is relatively easy to see how Santa Claus came to be in the United States. When the migration of British and Dutch colonists gained traction to the New World, both traditions started to mix over centuries. The first official record of Santa Claus, which is the Americanization of Sinterklaas, was in December 1773 in the Rivington’s Gazette. This Santa Claus too delivered presents via chimneys, yet his outward appearance, a jolly old man in a red snowsuit, was based on Father Christmas.

And as time progressed, Santa Claus developed his own traditions. 1821 was the first time Santa Claus was described as having reindeer, in the anonymous poem “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight”. The anonymous publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, better known as “The Night Before Christmas” two years later did not just reiterate Santa having reindeer, but became the primary source of how Santa has been portrayed from then on up until today. Yet Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of Santa Claus, has only existed since 1939. Robert L. May wrote the story featuring Rudolph and his bright red nose. The 1949 song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit number 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart that same year. Until the 1980s it remained the best-selling record of all time.

It is theorised Santa’s eight flying reindeer were inspired by Norse mythology. Specifically, by Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. This too is a similarity with Sinterklaas and his horse, travelling over roofs from chimney to chimney. As for Odin himself, he is often portrayed with a long white beard, broad hat and red cloak.

Funnily enough it was the 1930s Coca Cola campaign that popularised Santa Claus even more. Up until then, Santa was still occasionally depicted as a normal-built man like Saint Nicholas. In 1863 the cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed him as a heavier man for the first time, in his drawing “A Christmas Furlough”. It resembled the English Father Christmas’s usual depiction, and it became rather popular. Yet Nast’s most famous drawing was his ‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ from Harper Weekly’s January 1881 edition. To this day this drawing resembles Santa Claus as we know him.

So, over time Santa was increasingly portrayed as a “chubby and plump” man, until the 1930s Coca Cola campaign cemented the image of a jolly, bearded, red-suit wearing older man. This drawing by Haddon Sundblom of 1931 was the first of many, and ever since Coca Cola and Santa Claus have been inextricably connected. Then again, Santa Claus is a very welcome icon for advertising. I honestly was very surprised to find out that Santa is a chain-smoker and there are more vintage advertising posters of Santa smoking a cigarette than I can even sum up. And I have to emphasise, just in case, these vintage posters are shown in a historical context and not as an advertisement.

Now, although I’ve mainly focused on Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, Santa Claus is similar to its Russian counterpart as well. Ded Moroz, as he’s called, is the Slavic Pagan version of Santa Claus and Father Christmas. His name translates to as much as Grandfather Frost. Instead of Christmas Eve of December 5, Ded Moroz brings presents to children on New Year’s Eve. Instead of a carriage with flying reindeer, Ded Moroz rides a troika, a traditional Russian sleigh with three horses. When he’s out delivering presents he’s accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka, or The Snow Maiden. In Denmark, Santa’s equivalent is the Julemand or Yule-man. He too has a large sack of presents and travels in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. His little helpers, Julenisser, are akin to elves that work in a workshop, crafting and packaging presents for children.

Finland has the claim that Santa lives in Finnish Lapland. According to newspaper articles from 1925, Santa’s reindeer couldn’t graze on the Northpole, so he moved to Lapland. Yet his name isn’t Santa Claus but Joulupukki. This name, just like his Danish equivalent, refers to the old Germanic Yulefest, a tradition that has slowly been overtaken by Christmas.

Italy must have one of the more curious traditions. Over there La Befana hands out presents to children on January 5. And, well, La Befana isn’t a jolly old man but a kind of benign witch. According to legend, she didn’t want to accompany the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus, as she was cleaning her house. She changed her mind too late, and to this day she hands out candy to children in an attempt to find the baby.


Three daughters

My favorite story of Nicholas giving away his wealth is also the most likely to be true.

As sometimes happens, a once wealthy man, though devout, had become destitute. His poverty prevented a dowry for any of his daughters. Without this honored tradition, no one would think of marrying them. Therefore his daughters were likely to be sold as slaves to settle his debts. The most likely buyer of young, female slaves would be a brothel.

Nicholas decided to help them secretly. One night, under the cover of darkness, he tossed a sack of gold coins through the window. Some accounts have it landing in the eldest girl’s stocking, which would have surely been interpreted as a sign that it was her dowry.

The father caught him the third time. He fell to his knees, thanking Nicholas. Nicholas ordered him to tell no one. if he told no one, how would the story have become known?

This story of the three daughters appears to be unique, not recycled among the saints, increasing the likelihood that it is genuine. While it is unique among the stories of the saints, there is a parallel in Philostratus's Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius was a 1st century mythic hero of Rome, possibly written to counter the stories of Christ. Apollonius gave money to a destitute father to save him from public embarrassment. No mention is made of the fate of the daughters. The Roman Empire considered a woman’s virtue to be of little concern compared to a man’s reputation.

Some have suggested that the Nicholas story is an embellishment on the Apollonius story with a Christian twist. The well-being of women in the New Testament is unparalleled in the ancient world.

By the 8th or 9th centuries, concern for a woman’s virtue had again sunk far below concern for a man’s reputation. It is unlikely the story would have been invented long after the life of Nicholas.

May I be so bold as to suggest that it is possible the Nicholas story was absorbed into the older story with a Roman twist? I understand the appeal of the Nicholas story, concern for the daughter’s virtue motivating selfless giving would appeal to the early church much as it does today. For a Roman myth to give money to protect a man’s reputation seems trite by comparison and is not consistent with the Roman emphasis on strength. I cannot prove it, but my impression is that the Nicholas story is the original based on a real event (except maybe the part about the gold landing in the first daughter’s stocking, I can see that as a later embellishment).


Where Did Santa Claus Originate From? The History of Santa Claus Explained

The story of Santa Claus seems to be a tale as old as time, but the Christmas icon actually has his roots in a real-life person&mdashthe Catholic figure of St. Nicholas. And behind Santa's rosy-cheeked legend and reputation for treating kids to expensive and exciting gifts is a somewhat horrific tale of one man's genuine care for children.

The truth is, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are technically the same figure. St. Nicholas was a real, living person between the years 220 A.D. and 343 A.D. He was a Christian bishop, of Greek origin, during the time of the Roman Empire, according to National Geographic.

Two specific stories of St. Nicholas' saintly life inspired the modern-day idea of Santa Claus as a man who delivers presents to children out of the goodness of his heart. Consider yourself warned, though: The legends are a bit darker than one might expect.

"In the better-known tale, three young girls are saved from a life of prostitution when young Bishop Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to their indebted father, which can be used for their dowries," National Geographic explains.

The second story isn't much easier to hear, but you can draw a bit more of a direct line from it to the modern Santa Claus' love of children. "Nicholas entered an inn whose keeper had just murdered three boys and pickled their dismembered bodies in basement barrels," National Geographic notes. "The bishop not only sensed the crime, but resurrected the victims as well."

In spite of these bleak origins, people all around the world envision a much more wholesome story and atmosphere when they think of the more commercialized Santa Claus (who's also known as St. Nick). The image of a chubby man dressed in all red, who travels all around the world in a single night to share presents with children, and snack on milk and cookies, is one that's evolved over time.

It's believed that the idea of the modern-day Santa really came about in the 19th century, and he's a figure who has changed with the times when necessary. Now, in the 21st century, kids can even send Santa Claus an email of a handwritten letter, and they can also call a phone number to hear a voicemail message from the man himself. And it all stems from an actual historical figure who was focused on, among other things, protecting children.


Department stores began using Santa to advertise in the early 19th century

As History notes, the concept of giving gifts became an integral part of Christmas during the holiday's popularization in the early 19th century. The jolly old guy's image began to be used in store advertising around 1820. By the 1840s, newspapers were printing separate holiday sections in which it was common to find representations of the newly re-imagined image of Santa Claus, the plump, white-bearded, and red-velveted one we all know and love (and believe in, of course) today. In 1841, a store in Philadelphia put a life-sized Santa statue on display, drawing thousands of children and their shopper parents to have a look at cheery old Kris Kringle. The trend quickly caught on, and soon stores across the country had their own versions of Santa come Christmastime.

In the spirit of the original Saint Nick, one of the first organizations to dress real people up as Santa Claus wasn't a for-profit business, but a charity. The Salvation Army began its now standard practice of soliciting change with bell-ringing Santas in the 1890s. The organization decked out unemployed men in bright red Santa outfits to raise funds for the needy, and the Salvation Army Santas are now a staple outside of American department stores in December. It was during this last decade of the 19th century that the ancestor of the shopping mall Santa came into being as well.


The Origin of Santa Claus

Although based on St. Nicholas and the Dutch Sinterklass, the jolly gift-giver who is known universally today as Santa Claus is definitely an American creation.

In the United States of the late 18th-century, Christmas in most parts of the newly formed country centered around drinking, eating, and raucous noisemaking. However, this would change during the 1800s when Christmas became a quieter, more child centered and family oriented event.

This change in perspective was due, in part, to a group of scholars, writers and artists who helped create a new American view of Christmas. Among the transformations they made was the expansion of a Christmas figure known since the 1770s in America as Santa Claus, a name derived from the Dutch gift giver Sinterklass.

The Dutch and St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas was an actual 4th-century bishop who was known for his generosity to children and the poor. Many later Christmastime gift givers, such as England’s Father Christmas, France’s Pere Noel, and The Netherlands’ Sinterklass, are based on St. Nicholas.

When Dutch settlers came to America in the 1600s, they brought with them many of their customs. Among these was Sinterklass, a figure who delivered gifts to children on St. Nicholas Eve, December 6th. The story of Sinterklass, whose name was a variation of the name for Nicholas (Sint Niklass), was well known to an American scholarly and literary group who called themselves the Knickerbockers.

Sinterklass, Santa Claus and the Knickerbockers

The Knickerbockers were a group that hoped to create a culture that, although based in part on European traditions, would still be uniquely American. This included Christmas customs. In 1809, Washington Irving in his fictional History of New York Americanized Sinterklass, showing him as a man who traveled through the skies in a horse and wagon, slid down chimneys, and smoked a pipe.

The following year, George Pintard, another Knickerboker, published a pamphlet that showed pictures of St. Nicholas, dressed in bishop robes, stuffing presents into stockings on the fireplace (a European tradition), with treats for good children and sticks for those who had been bad.

In 1821, the book A Children’s Friend, possibly written by Knickerbocker James K. Paulding, told the story of “Santeclaus.” Adding to the legend, the author connected Santa with the northern winter, described him driving a sleigh driven by a solitary reindeer, and gave his annual arrival as Christmas Eve.

Clement Moore and A Visit from St. Nicholas

In 1822, Clement Moore, a classical scholar and yet another Knickerbocker, wrote a Christmas poem for his children, later published a year later as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “The Night Before Christmas.” Not only did Moore’s poem feature the by now familiar stockings, chimney, pipe, and Christmas Eve visits, but it presented a new picture of St. Nick.

As envisioned by Moore, the Christmas visitor was not a tall, slender, and somewhat stern individual dressed in flowing robes and hood as European gift bringers were often portrayed. Instead, he was a short, plump, and very jolly elf-like figure who drove a miniature sleigh driven not by one, but eight, reindeer. Furthermore, he named them: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. (Rudolph would come much later.)

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) and Santa Claus

By 1860, Santa had become a popular American figure, although one who was still varied in looks and habits. Then an artist, Thomas Nast, best remembered for his creation of the Republican elephant, Democrat donkey, Uncle Sam, and political cartoons attacking corrupt politicians, consolidated and rounded out the details over a period of many years. His work would lead to the Santa known today.

Based on Moore’s poem, Nast’s first depiction of Santa appeared in the 1863 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly. Published at the height of the Civil War, his illustration shows Santa visiting and giving gifts to a group of Union soldiers. Over the years he would refine this figure until by 1881 it had changed into a character easily recognizable today.

Nast also produced 76 other Christmas engravings over 24 years. One of these drawings helped to promote the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, a ritual long practiced in Europe. However, most of his illustrations added to what is now the modern day concept of Santa. Among his additions to the story were the following:

  • Santa lived at the North Pole (thus, making him a “citizen of the world.”)
  • He wore fur suits
  • Elves assisted in his toy workshop
  • Children wrote Santa letters
  • He kept a list of all who were “naughty or nice”
  • Bad children were not rewarded with gifts

Nast’s engravings were popular throughout the country, appealing to both rich and poor, literate and illiterate alike. It was these drawings, along with the writings of the Knickerbockers, that helped to create the Santa known today, a figure that is now recognized worldwide today.


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