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The History of Santa Claus

St. Nicholas and Santa Claus: What's in a Name?

The jolly Santa Claus we know today began as the devoted and giving Saint Nicholas, the fourth century Bishop of Myra, Greece (now Demre, Turkey), who was known as a protector of children, fishermen, merchants, scholars, and a patron of the poor. Legend suggests that he saved communities from famine, rescued marriageable maidens from slavery, and freed the innocently accused. Like our modern-day Santa, he was noted as a miracle worker and a gift giver-in fact, it's possible he even rescued (or at least helped reinvent) the holiday of Christmas as we know it today.

St. Nick has been an important figure for many cultures and religions worldwide; as a result, he's undergone many transformations throughout the centuries. Cultural shifts, Reformation, and patriotic promotions influenced both his metamorphosis into Father Christmas and our traditional celebration of his good deeds on Christmas day. His name in English emerged from a number of translations: it's easy to see how Santa Claus evolved from the German (Sankt Nikolaus) and Dutch (Sinterklaas or Sint Nicolaas) translations.

In an effort to introduce more wholesome Christmas traditions to the American household, 19th-century American writers and illustrators created a new identity for Saint Nicholas: one of a round, jolly "Sante Claus" who lives in the North Pole with elves and arrives in a sleigh led by flying reindeer. Poetry and illustrations proved pivotal in the shift away from the saintly bishop to a red-suited, white-bearded, pipe-smoking American Santa who slides down the chimney to deliver gifts as rewards for good behavior.

This image continued to evolve with the work of popular artists like Norman Rockwell and Thomas Nast. Eventually, Haddon Sundblom famously created Coca-Cola advertisements that further established and popularized this new image of Santa Claus. But regardless of the name he bears or outfit he wears, St. Nicholas has consistently been a symbol of peace and good will during the holiday season.

Here are a few popular Christmas traditions that are attributed to him:

Christmas stockings hung from the mantel
Origin: Saint Nicholas famously rescued a pair of daughters from being sold into slavery by leaving gold dowry money in stockings left drying at their fireplace. He knew their father would be too proud to accept his generous gift, therefore he left the gold to the daughters in secret.

Fruit in the toe of filled Christmas stockings
Origin: The gold St. Nicholas left as dowry money was often illustrated as gold balls, which is now more modestly symbolized by oranges and apples.

Candy canes
Origin: Bishops carry a crozier, or pastoral staff, that is hooked at the top like a shepherd's crook. This staff represents that bishops are the "shepherds" who guide and tend their flocks. Just as Bishop Myra's vestments eventually became a more festive fur-trimmed red suit, his crozier became a candy cane.

Season-related gift giving
Saint Nicholas famously gave gifts to those in greatest need-namely, the young and the most vulnerable. To this day, Christmas gifts given to family, friends, and charities reflect his compassionate concern for others.

Season-related concern for the needy
Saint Nicholas notoriously gave gifts to those in greatest need-the young and the most vulnerable. Christmas gifts given to those in need, along with other seasonal contributions to charity, reflect this concern for others.

As a granter of wishes and protector of the poor, St. Nicholas remains a beloved figure celebrated in households across the world. Many countries observe his feast day every year on December 6th, where children leave shoes or stockings by the mantel or on the stairs in the hope that St. Nick will leave them small gifts. (Of course, if they are naughty, they receive coal instead. But that's a different story...)

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Category:72175-The History of Santa Claus
Category:72175-The History of Santa Claus