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The history of Santa Claus

December 05, 20236 min read

Santa Claus was known around the world by many names like, Sinter Klaus, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, and Saint Nicholas. But where did the legend come from?

Santa the way we know him today

Santa Claus is a jolly old man with a white beard and red fur suit. He lives at the North Pole with his elf friends. The elves help him make toys all year long.

Every Christmas Eve, Santa loads the toys in his sleigh. Flying reindeer pull Santa’s sleigh so he can deliver the toys to good boys and girls. He flies all around the world in a single night. Santa magically slips down chimneys to put toys under a decorated tree and in kids' stockings that hang on the mantel—even in houses with no fireplace!

Wait... is that right? Elves? Flying Reindeer? Stockings? Where do all these stories come from?

The way Santa came to be

There once was a monk named Nicholas. Nicholas lived around the year 300 CE near the country of Turkey. Nicholas’ parents were very rich. When they died, Nicholas got all their money. He decided to use his wealth to help poor people.

Nicholas heard about a man who couldn’t afford dowries for his daughters. A dowry was an amount of money that a girl needed to get married. Men didn’t want a wife who had no dowry. And without husbands, the girls would have no one to take care of them.

Nicholas wanted to help this family. One night, he snuck into the house with a bag of gold. The oldest daughter’s stockings were hanging by the fire to dry. So he put the gold inside a stocking. She found it the next morning when she was getting dressed and used the gold to get married.

Nicholas did the same for the second sister and then the third sister. He wanted it to be a secret. But the third time, the father spied on him. Hetold everyone the story of how he watched as Nicholas snuck into the house and put gold in his daughter's stocking.

Other people told stories about how Nicholas helped them, too. This made the humble monk famous. Some years later, the Cristian Church made Nicholas a Saint. After that, he was known as Saint Nicholas. But during his own lifetime, he was just a simple monk.

Monks did all the writing back in the fourth century.

Few people in the middle ages knew how to read and write. Monks were among those who could. They usually wrote about other churchmen, kings and rich nobles. That’s what makes the story of a monk named Nicholas possible.

Monks used fragile paper called papyrus to write their stories. When the papyrus got old, later monks would copy the stories on fresh paper. This helped to preserve the story through the centuries.

There are no surviving papers about Nicholas from the 300s. But, the later accounts might have been copies from the original account. No one truly knows which parts or how much of the story was embellished later. But his story is written down.

Saint Nicholas become a big hit at Christmas

Santa Claus
Art by James Wright at wrightbrain.net.

The winter solstice is the longest night of the year. Ancient people celebrated the winter solstice by sharing gifts. In the Bible, the three wise men took gifts to the baby Jesus. So the Christians liked the idea of giving gifts on Christ's mass day. Since it was in December near the solstice, the two celebrations became one.

The early Christians also celebrated Saint Nicholas’ mass day on December 6. It didn’t take long to combine his story of giving gifts with that of Christmas. So he slipped right into the tradition.

Sint Nikolaas is the Dutch way to say Saint Nicholas. That led to the nickname Sinter Klaus, which evolved into Santa Claus.

There are reindeer in northern Europe, where the Santa Claus story was popular. During winter, deep snow drifts often piled up against doors and they couldn’t open. Santa would have to go up on the rooftops and slip down chimneys to leave his gifts. Having magic reindeer who could fly him up there sure was a helpful addition to the story!

In the 1930s, Coca-Cola played a role in popularizing the modern image of Santa Claus through its advertising campaigns. Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator, created images of Santa with a workshop of elves, helping to establish the connection between Santa and his magical helpers in the public imagination.

Recommended Reading

Christmas is the perfect time for kids to enjoy these classics:

An Orange for Frankie book cover

An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco

Set during the Great Depression, the Stowell family is abuzz with holiday excitement and Frankie, the youngest boy, is the most excited of all. But there's a cloud over the joyous season: Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and Pa hasn't returned yet from his trip to Lansing. He promised to bring back the oranges for the mantelpiece. Every year there are nine of them nestled among the evergreens, one for each of the children. But this year, heavy snows might mean no oranges . . . and, worse, no Pa!

This is a holiday story close to Patricia Polacco's heart. Frankie was her grandmother's youngest brother, and every year she and her family remember this tale of a little boy who learned--and taught--an important lesson about giving, one Christmas long ago

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clark Moore

Once upon a time, children imagined St. Nicholas as a stern, skinny bishop who was as likely to dole out discipline as Christmas presents. But thanks to the poem "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas"--written by Clement C. Moore in 1822 and published the next year in the Troy Sentinel--a plumper, merrier St. Nick was born, transformed into the sleigh-riding, chimney-diving jolly old elf we now call Santa Claus.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Fully illustrated, unabridged edition of A Christmas Carol written by Charles Dickens with classic drawings throughout by Arthur Rackham. The tale was written in October 1843 to help supplement Charles Dickens's income and "strike a sledgehammer blow" for the poor.

It is the tale of a miser given a second chance. From an author needing to get out of debt. A story of redemption and forgiveness. It is the story of Christmas.

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History of Santa Claus
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J.J. Caroll

Bookstore Curator

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