Who Is Santa Claus?

Portrait of happy Santa Claus holding Christmas letter and looking at camera

Portrait of happy Santa Claus holding Christmas letter and looking at camera

Santa – the man, the myth, the legend. When we hear his name, we immediately conjure up images of warmth, joy and giving. But who is Santa Claus? And just what is the story of Santa Claus? Many of us know bits and pieces behind the tales and traditions tied to Jolly Old St. Nick, but it is quite interesting (and satisfying) to take a few minutes to dig a little deeper and find out who Santa really is. Taking a closer look increases your appreciation for Christmas. So whether you’re a Christmas fanatic or more of a Scrooge, everyone can benefit from a little extra knowledge…and you may find yourself feeling like a kid again.

The Story of St. Nicholas

As you may have guessed, the story of Santa Claus begins with the story of St. Nicholas. There is just no way around it. Nicholas was born during the 3rd century in a village named Patara (located in what is now modern day Turkey). He was born into a wealthy family and was raised to be a faithful Christian. Unfortunately for Nicholas, he lost both of his parents at an early age to an epidemic.

Adhering to the Christian principles that he was taught, he used his wealth to help those in need. As a result of his work, he became the Bishop of Myra and was known for his charity and generosity, his love for children and his concern for the welfare of sailors and their ships (not surprising given the fact that Myra was a coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea).

During the Roman Empire, Christians were persecuted for their faith, and Nicholas was no exception. He was exiled from his homeland and imprisoned for his faith. He was eventually released and died in Myra in the year 343. He was buried in the cathedral in which he served, and over time Christians’ devotion to Nicholas and what he represented grew. Within a century he was made a saint for all of his good works and deeds. All of this culminated with the marking of the anniversary of his death (December 6th) as St. Nicholas Day.

The Evolution of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus Begins

Stories abounded about the generosity and giving nature of Nicholas. In one such tale, Nicholas secretly helped a father who did not have enough money to pay for his three daughters’ dowries. Rather than see the girls be sold into servitude, Nicholas secretly left money for the father on three separate occasions. On each night, Nicholas tossed a bag of gold through a window, and each time it landed in either stockings or shoes hanging by the fireplace to dry. One can easily see how this story has contributed to the modern day Christmas tradition of stockings filled with presents.

In another story, Nicholas prayed to God to bring back to life three boys who had been murdered by a vicious innkeeper. His prayers were answered, and the boys were saved. It again becomes simple to see why St. Nicholas (and Santa) is known as the protector of children.

Throughout Europe, the feast day of St. Nicholas was celebrated with a focus on his generosity and giving. The Dutch in particular continued to honor St. Nicholas on his feast day. The custom was for children to leave their shoes by the door the night before and St. Nicholas would leave a gift there for the following morning. In fact, some think it was the Dutch who brought St. Nicholas and his gift-giving traditions to the Americas in the 1700s. Other evidence points to the German colonists in Pennsylvania, who continued to celebrate his feast day in the New World. Regardless of who truly deserves the credit, what really matters here is that respect, admiration and honor for St. Nicholas was successfully carried over to the Americas.

In the early 1770’s, a New York newspaper reported that Dutch families were gathering to honor his feast day – a sign that the celebration of St. Nicholas was alive and well in America. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas – Sint Nikolaas – was shortened into a nickname for this saint – Sinter Klaas. As this nickname became more popularly used, the evolution of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus ebbed closer and closer.

Even further strengthening the popularity of St. Nicholas, Washington Irving wrote a book in which he proclaimed St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York. In this fictional work, Irving portrayed Nicholas as a happy – or shall we say jolly – character who even came down chimneys to bring gifts to children. Stories grew from here, with descriptions of Sinter Klaas beginning to include a red waistcoat and stockings.

Santa flying his sleigh against balcony overlooking city

Santa Claus As We Know Him Today

As the 19th century progressed, the Christmas season began to lose its religious semblance, and the holiday itself actually became more a scene of public disorder than of religious devotion. In response to this increase in rowdiness and drunkenness during Christmas, there was a strong desire, especially among the upper classes, to make the holiday season calmer and to tame the masses. People began to focus on the importance of family life more, and over time the Christmas season slowly changed its focus towards the notions of family and children that we know and cherish today. In line with these changes, the images and depictions of St. Nicholas continued to evolve as well.

As the Christmas holiday began to come back to life, an increased focus on gift giving emerged, especially gifts for children. A book entitled the Children’s Friend painted a picture of ‘Sante Clause’ (as the name evolved) living in the North and getting around via a sleigh with flying reindeer. This greatly contributed to an even bigger movement away from St. Nicholas as a saintly person and more towards the Santa image we have today rewarding good behavior and punishing bad among children.

To help seal the deal, the 1820s also saw the writing of a poem we all now know as “The Night Before Christmas.” This work solidified the image we have of Santa Claus today as a jolly, elf-like character with a pipe and a merry disposition. Christmas became truly Americanized from here. Images of Santa in his red suit emerged as he was portrayed by many artists, and the Santa Claus we know and love today became a staple of the Christmas season. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping, and with this came colorful and vibrant images of Santa Claus. In order to attract more customers, stores even began to offer chances to meet a real live Santa.

Santa Claus Lives On

Santa Claus as we know and love him is alive and well in America today, and there is no sign of his power or presence ceasing. And as we reflect back on the story of Santa Claus it becomes clear that Santa is a true representation of the spirit of Christmas. Despite the commercialization of Santa that has taken place over the centuries, one cannot refute that the core principles of this man are charity and generosity.  Who is Santa Claus? He is a protector of children, a giver of gifts and a beacon of hope. Is the real Santa Claus a man, a myth or a legend then? History proves he is, in reality, a magical and wonderful combination of all three. And this winning combination had secured him a place in history that is unlikely to ever fade.