Santa Claus may be a figure of myth, but the origins of his legend, stretching back from shopping malls to 3rd century Turkey, are very real.
The figure of Santa Claus has, in various forms, become ubiquitous throughout the world during the Christmas season and is, in fact, almost as old as the concept of celebrating Christmas. While his legend has taken on increasingly fantastical elements throughout the ages, from flying reindeer to to nearly divine omniscience, the truth about the man who began the legend and his example of generosity and care has also endured. Here is how the saintly acts of a 3rd century bishop gave rise to the legend of Santa we know today.
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The origin of the story of Santa Claus began with the 3rd Century bishop of Myra, a Greek town in what is now Turkey, who is venerated by the church as St. Nicholas. Not only do written records tell of his existence, but researchers at Oxford University recently discovered that the church may have truly preserved the remains of St. Nicholas of to this day.
Tales of Nicholas’s generosity and of the miracles he performed on behalf of children and sailors gave rise to traditions that would form the basis for the story of Santa Claus later on. The stories spread initially when, according to legend, Nicholas’s generosity saved the three daughters of a single father from enduring lives of prostitution or slavery, according to History.
The legend says that the father of the three sisters could not afford to pay a dowry for them to be married which, in the 3rd or 4th centuries, would resign them to a fate of begging, slavery, or prostitution. Upon hearing of their plight, Nicholas went to their house and threw gold through an open window. Some traditions say that he dropped it through the house’s chimney.
The gold landed in either boots or stockings placed by the fireside to dry. The sisters’ father, after discovering gold enough for a dowry had seemingly appeared in miraculous fashion twice in a stocking or boot, stayed by the fire both night and day to try and catch the anonymous do-gooder in the act. He caught Nicholas throwing gold through the window for the third dowry, and though Nicholas begged him not to tell a soul, legend spread throughout the region of his generosity. Christians in the area from then on often attributed unexpected gifts to St. Nicholas, according to the St. Nicholas Center.
The church venerated Nicholas as the patron saint of children and sailors for his generosity and for tales of his miraculous acts. His veneration in the church lasted through the centuries and even endured the Protestant reformation, despite Protestants’ rejection of the Catholic concept of saints. The legend of St. Nicholas took root especially in the Netherlands, according to History.
The Dutch name for Saint Nicholas was Sint Nikolaas, which was shortened to Sinterklaas. The legend of Sinterklaas developed in the Netherlands in large part because of the influence of the Spanish. Nicholas’s remains were transported to the Italian town of Bari in 1087, which became part of the Spanish kingdom of Naples. The Dutch people also associated gifts of mandarin oranges, which came from Spain, with Sinterklaas. Thus, the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas held that he sailed to the Netherlands from Spain.
The Dutch celebrated Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas, Dec. 6, the feast day of the saint. According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas relied on his black servant, Black Pete, to listen in chimneys and find out whether children had been good or bad. Originally, the Dutch said Sinterklaas would stuff badly behaved children in a sack and take them back to Spain with him. Otherwise, Sinterklaas would visit the houses of good children and leave a sack of gifts on their doorstep. The Dutch originally took part in these festivities to honor the legacy of St. Nicholas, but the traditions took on a life of their own especially after their arrival in America.
Santa Claus Comes To America
The Dutch are credited with bringing Sinterklaas to New York in the early 17th century, according to History. Newspapers from 1773 and 1774 reported that Dutch families gathered in New York to commemorate the death of St. Nicholas. The author Washington Irving, who popularized Christmas celebrations in America with his book The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, also popularized Sinterklaas in America with his book The History of New York. Irving’s work depicted Sinterklaas as the patron saint of New York.
Christmas celebrations and the tradition of Santa Claus, an English form of the name Sinterklaas, spread through America in the mid 19th century, especially via newspaper ads related to Christmas gift-giving. Shopping mall Santas first appeared in America as early as 1841 as part of merchandisers’ efforts to capitalize on the rush to buy gifts during the Christmas season. The shopping mall Santa also gave rise to the Salvation Army Santa. The Salvation Army dressed jobless men as Santa in the 1890s and unleashed them in the streets to gather donations for the organization.
The modern image of Santa as a jolly, rotund man dressed in red who flies to children’s houses in a sleigh drawn by reindeer also arose during that time, thanks to the Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore. Moore wrote a the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” in 1822. That depiction of Santa Claus has remained popular in America ever since.
Other variations of Santa Claus figures exist throughout the world, such as the Swiss and German Kris Kringle or “Christ Child,” or the Scandinavian elf Jultomten, each bearing unique influences from the cultures in which they developed. All of them, however, trace back in some way to legend of the 3rd century St. Nicholas, whose example of Christ-like generosity and piety continue to inspire Christian faithful to this day.