Santa Claus is the most widely recognized figure in the Western world. How did he come to be so beloved?
The Middle East. The original Santa Claus was St. Nicholas, an early Christian bishop who was born in 270, in what is now Turkey. His parents died when he was young, leaving him a fortune. After he became bishop of Myra, he gave away his riches, freely but anonymously. In perhaps his best-known act of kindness, he secretly tossed bags of gold through a poor family's window, to provide dowries so the household's three daughters could find husbands instead of being sold into slavery. At least one of the bags landed in a stocking hung up to dry by the fireplace, which is why children still hang up stockings on Christmas Eve to be filled with gifts.
How did he become such an icon?
Despite his efforts at anonymity, Nicholas soon became famous for his kindness and generosity-especially toward the young. When he died, on Dec. 6, 343, he was declared a saint by popular demand. Early admirers, mainly children, celebrated the anniversary of his passing by leaving out gifts for his white horse before they went to bed on Dec. 5. When they woke up, they were rewarded with sweets that the kindly saint had left behind.
How did his fame spread west?
Sailors carried stories about St. Nicholas over the Mediterranean Sea to distant lands. In 1087, an expedition set out from Italy to find the saint's bones and bring them back to be enshrined in a church in a town called Bari, where they rest to this day. Two centuries later, crusaders on their way back from the Holy Land visited Bari. They returned to homes all over Europe telling tales of the life and miracles of St. Nicholas.
What did Nicholas have to do with Christmas?
Initially, nothing. For centuries, his life was celebrated on Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death and his official Roman Catholic feast day. But after the Reformation, the Protestants said that Christmas celebrations, which included pagan traditions of exchanging gifts and raucous merrymaking, exhibited “an extreme forgetfulness of Christ, giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.” The English Parliament banned Christmas observances in 1644, and the Puritans in Massachusetts did the same. Christmas devotees kept the holiday alive by celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas instead, and over time, the two celebrations merged.
How did St. Nick become Santa?
That was an American innovation. Early Dutch settlers of New York called the holiday hero Sint Herr Nikolaas, later shortened to Sinterklaas. The name morphed into Santa Claus over the 17th and 18th centuries. Back then, Santa looked a little different. He was often depicted as a gaunt old-timer, like the English Father Christmas, who is believed to have been modeled after a pagan spirit who wore holly sprigs in his white hair. The American Santa wore traditional bishop's garb—a pointed hat (miter) and a staff hooked at the top like a shepherd's crook (hence the shape of the peppermint candy canes that we have at Christmas).
Was Santa always big in America?
No. After the Puritans nearly did him in, it took an organized effort to restore his popularity. In the early 19th century, a small number of influential New Yorkers rekindled interest in St. Nicholas, as the focal point of a wholesome, home-centered tradition quite unlike the rowdy, pagan celebrations of old. They declared Nicholas the patron saint of their city. In 1809, Washington Irving wrote a history of New York in which he introduced “Sinter Klaas” to America as a kindly saint who arrived at people's homes on horseback on the eve of his feast day.
When did Santa get his reindeer?
The image of St. Nick as “a jolly old elf” towed around by flying reindeer really began taking shape in 1822, with the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”—also known by its opening line, “'Twas the night before Christmas.” It was written by Clement Moore (a biblical studies professor) for his children. Forty years later, political cartoonist Thomas Nast refined Santa's image with a series of drawings in Harper's Weekly. Nast's Santa dropped the bishop's garb, and wore instead a brown coat trimmed with white fur. He also got a new address: Nast depicted St. Nick sitting on a box marked “Christmas box 1882, St. Nicholas, North Pole.”
Did Santa always bring children gifts?
Yes, but nothing like the loot kids expect these days. Centuries ago, children awoke to find nuts, sweets, and maybe clay figurines in their stockings. Sometimes the toes of their stockings would be filled with an orange, which represented the gold that St. Nicholas gave the poor. But in the late 19th century, merchants started looking for a way to get rid of their inventory at the end of the year. In 1867, Macy's department store in New York City broke sales records by staying open late on Christmas Eve, and in the 1870s, it lured even more shoppers with elaborate Christmas window displays, and by bringing Santa Claus, alive and in person, into the store. Santa’s commercialization had begun.
So who's Kriss Kringle?
Kriss Kringle is another foreign Christmas character whose name was twisted to suit the American tongue. German immigrants taught their children that it wasn't St. Nicholas who brought them gifts, but the Christ child, or Christkindl. The child was often accompanied by an elfin helper, known in some places as Pelznickel, or “Nicholas with fur.” Adults in the German communities of Pennsylvania, where the tradition was strong, dressed up as Pelznickel by donning furry disguises and false beards. This memorable character visited before bedtime, whereps Christkindl only arrived to leave gifts while the children were sleeping. Since the recipients never saw their real benefactor, Kriss Kringle (as the name came to be pronounced) became confused with his whiskery assistant—and eventually with the gift-bearing Santa Claus.
Where did Santa get his red suit? That is a controversial issue. “The jolly old St. Nick we know from countless images did not come from Western European folklore,” James Twitchell wrote in Adcult USA:The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. “He came from yearly advertisements of the Coca-Cola Co.” In 1931, Coke hired a Swedish illustrator named Haddon Sundblom to draw a series of Santas for an ad campaign to boost sales of its soft drink in winter. Sundblom chose as his model a portly retired Coke salesman and dressed him in the company colors—red and white. But according to Gerry Bowler, author of The World Encyclopedia o f Christmas, the image of a plump Santa decked out in red was already quite common before the 1930s. “What those Coke ads do,” he says, “is just put the final touch on it.”
THE WEEK Jan 7, 2005