St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: The original man and evolving traditions

Christmas is rapidly approaching and adults and children alike are preparing to receive and give gifts. Children, specifically, are waiting for Santa Claus with baited breath. But who is Santa Claus, and how did he become the jolly giver of gifts to the world?

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced as far back as the 4th Century, in Turkey, to a very real man named St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Smyrna, which was a Greek community in the 300s. During his appointment as bishop, St. Nicholas was aware of a minor noble in failing wealth with three young daughters. Because he could not afford dowry for his daughters, he was going to sell his daughters into a life of prostitution. This is not the happy origin story most people expect, but it does finish with a happy ending. In the dead of night, St. Nicholas is said to have gifted the noble three bags of gold, enough to act as dowry so the three ladies could properly be married off and live happily.

This story lays down the first legend for St. Nicholas the gift giver. The image of St. Nicholas bringing gifts to only the daughters could give power to the tradition of Santa bringing gifts to only children. The road to the American tradition of Santa Claus is long, and much like the gift giver’s origin story, not what everyone expects. On Dec. 6 in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas, or Sinterklass, still rides into town on a white horse, dressed in his red bishop’s robes and preceded by “Black Peter,” a Satanic figure in an outlandish costume who beats the bad children with a switch while rewarding the good children with candy and gifts.

The red bishop’s robes have been considerably shortened down to the red coat Santa wears in the American visualization. Figures such as “Black Peter” appear in many cultures with legends like Krampus of Germany, a devilish figure that treats bad children in a similar fashion to Black Peter. Perhaps the split of duties between Santa Claus, Black Peter, and Krampus is where the famous Naughty and Nice list comes from?

We’re getting closer and closer to the American understanding of Santa Claus. I promise. The American Santa Claus is a hybridization of St. Nicholas and the British Father Christmas. The political cartoonist Thomas Nast created a Santa Claus dressed in furs and looking more like a gift present delivering mountain trapper–but Nast’s Santa Claus’s image grew fatter and merrier over the years and given the red bishop’s jacket as he was reimagined over and over during the years.

Americans do their gift exchanging on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, but in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and some other European countries, presents are still opened on Dec. 5, which is St. Nicholas’s Eve, or Dec. 6, St. Nicholas’s Day. Santa Claus is believed to be an international figure due to the believe that he goes from the North Pole and gives gifts the world over, but to many nations and cultures, he is still the old St. Nicholas. To commemorate the 40 days of temptations that Christ suffered in the wilderness following His baptism, the Greek Orthodox Church observes a 40-day fast or Lenten season prior to Christmas Eve, commencing on Nov. 14, that many practicing Christians follow in America today. The Orthodox Greeks fast prohibits the consumption of any animal products, olive oil, or liquor. During this period, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, is commemorated on Dec. 6, but with much less show than in central Europe. Door to door caroling can be traced back to ancient Greece, as well.

We’ve covered Santa’s changing appearances and the days of exchange, but let’s talk about how Santa’s delivery methods have changed over time and location. The tradition of Santa coming while the kids are sleeping comes from an old painting, “The Charity of St. Nicholas of Bari.” St. Nicholas was from Bari, and appointed to oversee the Church in Smyrna. “The Charity of St. Nicholas of Bari” depicts St. Nicholas, under cover of nightfall, delivering the three bags of gold. St. Nicholas delivered them through an open window while the family slept.

St. Nicholas as Santa Claus has been established, but how does St. Nicholas fit into Christmas? The gifts of the Wise Men to the baby Christ is a very easy and simple tie to St. Nicholas, though St. Nicholas’s gifts were not to the king of man, but to save three young women from the profession of Mary Magdalene, one of Christ’s closest followers. Also note the connection of three Wise Men and St. Nicholas saving the fate of three women in the Christmas narrative. In the mid 19th Century, Christmas began to acquire its associations with an increasingly secularized holiday of gift-giving and good cheer, a view that was popularized in works such as Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and Charles Dickens’s 1843 story A Christmas Carol. Christmas cards first appeared in 1846. The current concept Santa Claus was first made popular in New York in the 19th century and highly marketed by Coca-Cola in the 20th.

Christmas trees and Santa’s connection to chimneys goes back to far gone Pagan days, specifically to Greek and Nordic/German traditions. Greeks pre-Christian traditions talk about the kallikantzari, mythical gremlins from the underworld, temporarily ceased their year-long attempts to destroy the roots of the Tree of Life, which held up the physical world, and came to the surface to wreak havoc and mischief. Think of the gremlins as the opposite of what Santa’s elves should be like. While the gremlins were above ground, the Tree of Life represented by the precursor to Christmas trees, recovered Because kallikantzari get into houses by chimney, a fire must burn throughout the 12 days of Christmas to keep them at bay, and all visitors to the home must stir the fire. This looks much like the Yule log we are used to seeing. Could Santa Claus coming down the chimney early on Christmas morning mean that the threat of gremlins is over?

As Christmas comes so close, its fun to look back at the old stories and traditions of one of the world’s most celebrated holidays. Because Christmas is celebrated by so many in so many different ways, let us all come together this year and celebrate the gifts and people we are so fortunate to have this hopefully happy season.


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