Editor’s note: This article may not be suitable for young children and others that still believe in a magical elf that travels the world in one night leaving presents for the good kids and lumps of coal for the naughty ones.
Santa Claus wasn’t always a short fat elf dressed in red.
Like most American Christmas traditions the legend of Santa Claus is a fusion of cultural traditions from the many countries that sent people to the shores of a new world. They brought with them the traditions of their homeland, which were eventually amalgamated to create a new tradition that emerged uniquely American.
Santa Claus, as we know him today, is a mixture of fanciful facts, long told lore, and commercial creativity.
There was a real St. Nicholas. His birth is traditionally recorded as March 15, 270. He was the bishop of the ancient Greek, now Turkish, city of Myra.
The patron saint of children, sailors, fishermen, merchants and several other groups, St. Nicholas is usually portrayed as a tall slender figure with a beard wearing a traditional cleric outfit.
It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to St. Nicholas’ life. He is said to have had a habit of anonymous gift giving.
One story says he saved three young sisters from a life of prositution by throwing sacks of money in their window at night so their father could pay their dowry for marriage. The money may have landed in their socks, which were hung by the fireplace to dry out at night.
In another tale, a bit more gruesome, St. Nicholas is said to have resurrected three boys that had been murdered and pickled by either a bar keeper or a butcher, or perhaps a butcher that kept bar.
The legend of Sinterklaas, a derivation of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, was brought to New Amsterdam by Dutch settlers in what is now New York City.
The feast of Sinterklaas is traditionally celebrated on Dec. 6, the same day as the feast of St. Nicholas. An elderly man with a full beard wearing a bishop’s garb, Sinterklaas, rides into town on a white horse carrying a red book with the names of naughty and nice children.
The name Kris Kringle goes back to the protestant reformation.
Martin Luther is said to have wanted to discourage the practice of praying to saints, like St. Nicholas, and introduced the idea of Christkindl.
Christkindl secretly came on Christmas Eve to bring presents to good children. The name Chriskindl was easily modified to Kris Kringle and became another name for Santa Claus.
Father Christmas is another folklore figure attributed sometimes to St. Nicholas.
He appears in early British traditions as a pagan figure that brought spring each year. Eventually he morphed into an elderly old man with a long white beard who often wore a blue hooded cloak. He traveled the world over several days at the end of the year giving out presents.
The American modern image of Santa Claus goes back to New York.
The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now known as “The Night Before Christmas” first appeared in the Troy, New York “Sentinel” on Dec. 23, 1823.
The poem’s author, Clement C. Moore, described St. Nicholas as popping out of chimney as a “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,” along with his red nose and cheeks, white beard, dressed in fur, and a “little round belly” that shook like a “bowl full of jelly.”
Moore’s poem and conglomeration of St. Nicholas’ features became very popular. But the actual image of St. Nicholas or Santa Claus varied until “Harper’s Weekly” illustrator Thomas Nast drew a cartoon of Santa in 1881.
Nast’s figure of a man with a beard in a red coat drew from Moore’s poem and became the definitive image of the Christmas elf.
The image of Santa Claus was modernized in 1931 by an illustrator that created an advertisement for the Coca-Cola Company. The image of Santa as a full-figured man in a red suit with white fur trim, a big black belt and boots, a flowing soft white curly beard, and a red cap holding a bottle of Coca-Cola became the iconic picture of Santa Claus.
So whether he is called Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Chriskindl, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas or old St. Nick, he may be found leaving presents under a tree at Christmas time.