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The History of Santa Claus

St. Nick and Santa Claus; a name change for Christmas


Patience Brewster Santa Dash Away Figure

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), best known as a protector of children, fishermen, merchants, scholars, and a helper to the needy. Legends suggest that he protected 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—it’s possible that he also rescued (or at least was part of the reinvention of) Christmas as know it today.

St. Nick has been an important figure for many cultures and religions worldwide; he has undergone many transformations over the centuries. Cultural shifts, Reformation, and patriotic promotions have led to his metamorphosis into Father Christmas, and to celebrating his good deeds on Christmas day. His name evolved due to a number of translations: it’s easy to see how his name evolved into Santa Claus from the German (Sankt Nikolaus) and Dutch (Sinterklaes 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, elf-like "Sante Claus" arriving from the North in a sleigh led by a flying reindeer. Poetry and illustrations proved pivotal to a shift away from the disorderly conduct of the season (public drunkenness and thievery-out-of-boredom, as were popular at that time) and also refocused imagery from the saintly bishop to a red-suited, white-bearded, pipe-smoking American Santa who slid 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, and eventually Haddon Sundblom, who famously created Coca-Cola advertisements that further established and popularized this new image of Santa Claus. It has also been recorded that the inclusion of Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, and the giving of gifts greatly increased attendance in sanctuaries and generally made Christmas a jollier and merrier time.

But no matter what name he bears or outfit he wears—Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, the historical Bishop of Myra—promotes a season of sharing with others. Here are a few traditions that recall legends about him and are celebrated as part of the Christmas season:

Christmas stockings hung from the mantel
Saint Nicholas legendarily rescued a pair of daughters from being sold into slavery by secretly leaving gold dowry money in stockings left drying at their fireplace.

Fruit in the toe of filled Christmas stockings
The gold St. Nick left as dowry money is often illustrated as gold balls and has come to be symbolized by oranges and apples.

Candy Canes

Candy canes
A crozier, or pastoral staff, is a symbol of St. Nicholas. Bishops are known to carry such staffs, hooked at the top like a shepherd's crook, showing they are the shepherds who care for their people.

Gift giving and stockings filled in secret, during the night
Saint Nicholas did his gift giving under cover of darkness, as he didn't want to be seen or recognized.

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 bearer of granted wishes and protector of the poor, Saint Nicholas remains a welcome figure celebrated in many households; many observe his feast day every year on December 6th. In many places this day involves children leaving shoes or stockings by the mantel or on the stairs, in hope that St. Nick will leave them small gifts. (Of course, if they are naughty, they receive coal instead! But that’s another story.)

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Category:72175-The History of Santa Claus
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