History of Santa Claus: Saint or Elf?

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas by by Jaroslav Čermák


December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day.” The name Santa Claus is a kind of a contraction for Saint Nicholas. The German name Sankt Nikolaus can be pronounced San’t(a) ni-KLOuse (sounding like house.)


Origin of St. Nicholas

He was born in the late 3rd century, perhaps in A.D. 270. Nicholas became a bishop in Greece and gained distinction in the councils of the church. He was especially famed for unexpected gifts and later associated with the giving of presents during the season at the end of the year.

“I am Nicholas, a sinner, Nicholas, servant of Christ Jesus.” 

the old saint would say. He was imprisoned during the great persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 303 but freed by the decree of Emperor Constantine. After that, he served as Bishop in Myra for another thirty years.

He died on December 6, about 343, and the Feast of St. Nicholas is now held on that day.


St. Nicholas Battles Heresy

saint nicholas of myra slapping arius at the council of nicaea greek icon

St. Nicholas slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea

Nicholas participated in the famous first ecumenical church Council of Nicaea called by Emperor Constantine in 325, where the surprising story is told that he lost his temper and slapped the heretic Arius.

Bad Santa?

Arius was a presbyter from Alexandria who taught that “there was a time when Christ was not,” declaring the Son of God had a different “essence” or “nature” than the Father, denying Christ’s deity. But Nicholas was a dedicated “Trinitarian” and one of the signers of the Nicene Creed that asserted the Trinity: three persons of the same nature. This was the first council where Arius’ teachings were condemned, but it was not the last.


Stories of St. Nicholas

Many other stories are told of his kindness, such as the story of the poor man and his three daughters. To save the girls from being sold into prostitution for want of dowries, St. Nicholas dropped a bag full of gold down the man’s chimney. It landed in one of the stockings the eldest daughter had hung up to dry. Now, she could be married.

pawn shop

The other two daughters quickly hung up stockings for St. Nicholas to fill with gold so that they, too, could soon be married. By the way, the three golden globes of the pawnshop are attributed to this story.


Santa Claus in Europe

He seems to have been adopted by the Netherlands as the patron saint of children. On St. Nicholas Eve, they leave their wooden shoes, or sabots, filled with hay for the Saint’s white horse. He is real to children the world over, who await his annual visit under various names such as Kris Kringle, Weihnachtsmann, Father Christmas, Saint Nick, La Befana, and Yule Tomten.


Santa Claus in America

In 1809, the American author Washington Irving, under the pen name Diedrich Knickerbocker, wrote “A History of New York,” wherein Saint Nicholas, a jolly personage smoking a Dutch pipe, skimmed over the treetops in a wagon and dropped presents down the chimneys.


Santa Clause in Literature

Nast Santa ClausA few years later, in 1823, Clement C. Moore reputedly wrote a poem for his children known as “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but more commonly called “The Night Before Christmas.” In the poem, he writes:

“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”

However, in his book “Author Unknown,” Don Foster makes a case that Henry Livingston actually penned it in 1807 or 1808 and published it anonymously, with Moore claiming authorship in 1837. Many are unaware that the term Santa Claus was never used in the poem. However, the reindeer are there, a part of the legend undoubtedly developed in America, probably by Scandinavians in the United States.


Depiction of Santa Claus

During the Christmas season of 1862, the German-born American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a picture of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War. Nast combined his native German traditions of Saint Nicholas with other German folk traditions of elves in creating the image seen above right. His various pictures of Santa Claus ran through 1866, firmly cementing the image in the American mind. The name Santa Claus also became more familiar to American ears than the German Sankt Niklaus or Dutch Sinterklaas.

Coca-Cola Santa ClausFinally, in the 1930s, the now-familiar American Santa image solidified. The artist Haddon Sundblom began Coca-Cola Santa advertisements running for thirty-five years, finally establishing Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture. This Santa was not an elf but a man — jolly and wearing the now-familiar white fur-trimmed red suit.


There is an alternative view. Some believe Santa Claus was originally Polish. North Polish.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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