The figure we all know and love as Santa Claus has a long and interesting history that many will not have heard. Today he is thought of as a jolly man in a red suit who lives in the north pole, but the original story of St. Nicholas stretches all the way back to the 3rd century.
The legend of Santa Claus can be tracked back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas who is believed to have been born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara which would have been close to Myra in modern-day Turkey. St. Nicholas was admired for his piety and kindness, which lead to him becoming the subject of many legends. It is said that Nicolas gave away all of his inherited wealth and travelled the country side, helping the poor and sick. Over the course of many years Nicholas’ popularity spread and he became known as the ‘protector of children and sailors’.
St. Nicholas made his first introduction into popular American culture towards the end of the 18th century. This began when a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honour the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death. As the popularity of St. Nicholas’ grew in New York his name evolved from his Dutch name of Sinter Klaas to Santa Claus. In 1804 a member of The New York Historical Society, John Pintard, started distributing woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meetings. In the background of these woodcuts were stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace. These evolved to become familiar traits related to both Santa and Christmas today. As the prominence of Sinter Klaas grew he was described as everything from a ‘rascal’ with a blue three cornered hat, red waistcoat and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad brimmed hat and a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose.
Shops began advertising for Christmas shopping in around 1820, and by the 1840’s newspapers were creating separate sections to advertise for the holiday seasons, these advertisements would include images of the newly-popular Santa Claus. The idea of Christmas shopping became particularly popular in 1841 when thousands of children visited a shop in Philadelphia to see a life size Santa Claus model. It didn’t take long for other shops to follow suit and soon enough many were offering a live peek at Santa to attract customers during the Christmas season. The use of ‘real’ Santa’s grew vastly and became one of the most popular ways of advertising during the Christmas period, so much so that the Salvation Army would pay homeless people to dress up as Santa and go out on the streets to gather donations.
The idea of Santa Claus became hugely popular all over the world. Some countries however had their own figures, which were similar in traits and traditions, but known by alternative names, such as Christkind and Kris Kringle. Overall, across the globe, most countries have a story that includes someone delivering presents to children that are well behaved throughout the year.