By Jethro Wegener
Almost everyone knows Santa Claus. He’s a jolly fat man in a red suit with grey hair and a big, bushy beard, but did you know that he is based on a real person? The Santa we know and love today is the result of a long and varied historical journey that starts all the way back in the 3rd century.
The Man Behind the Myth
The legend can be traced back to a Christian monk born near Myra, Turkey, around 280 A.D. Named Nicholas, he was renowned for his kindness and generosity and became a bishop at a very young age, dedicating his life to helping the poor despite the fact that he came from a wealthy family.
Perhaps one of the most famous stories about him was when he saved three young girls from prostitution. The story goes that the father of three girls lost all his money and was on the verge of prostituting his daughters just so that they could live, since at the time girls with no dowry could not marry. Saint Nicholas anonymously donated a bag of gold to each girl, thereby allowing them to get married and live happily there after. Their father discovered who had helped his daughters and, against the monk’s wishes, shared the story of his generosity throughout the land.
His reputation of a secret gift-giver spread rapidly and he became especially known for depositing coins and treats in the shoes or stockings of children. Over the years, he became recognised as the protector of children and on the anniversary of his death, the 6th of December, feasts were held each year. Small gifts were also given to youngsters, in his honour. For several hundred years this was the case, until the Protestant Reformation – which discouraged the worship of saints. This led to them falling out of favour across Europe and Saint Nicholas along with them.
In the Netherlands however, the Dutch kept the legend of Saint Nicholas alive. They had their own version of him – Sinterklaas, a kindly old man that journeyed from house to house on the eve of December 5th, giving presents to young children in exchanged for a treat for his horses.
According to Dutch traditions, Sinterklaas wore red bishop’s robes, had elves as helpers and even rode his horses across rooftops. He would also slide down the chimney to give gifts to those living in the houses.
It was near the end of the 18th century that Saint Nicholas started to enter American pop culture and become more like we know him today. Brought over with the Dutch settlers, his name became Santa Claus around the 1770s.
Unlike the early legends, he wasn’t depicted as a portly fellow, having usually been shown as a lanky old man with a beard. This changed in 1809 with the publication of Washington Irving’s book ‘A History of New York’. In the book, Santa is referred to as the patron Saint of New York and described as a large man smoking a pipe. Then in 1822, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ was published. Written by Clement Moore, this was the first time Santa was described as we know him today; as a fat man with a magical sleigh powered by reindeer and a bag full of toys. The work became immensely popular, leading many other works to follow this imagery. Coca-Cola that made Santa exactly what he is today, when they published images of him in a red suit with white-fur trim and black leather boots in the 1930s
Due to the fact that America had such great influence at the time, Santa Claus as they showed him quickly spread. It wasn’t long before the American version of Santa was known and generally accepted the world over. And today the vision created over all these years has entered the public consciousness. It is now used almost everywhere and it can all be traced back to a humble bishop from the 3rd century.