The man we know as Santa Claus has a history all his own. Today, he is thought of mainly as the
jolly man in red, but his story stretches all the way back to the 3rd century. Find out more about the
history of Santa Claus from his earliest origins to the shopping mall favorite of today, and discover
how two New Yorkers–Clement Clark Moore and Thomas Nast–were major influences on the Santa
Claus millions of children wait for each Christmas Eve.


The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It
is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day
Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends.
It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor
and sick. One of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories is that he saved three poor sisters from
being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they
could be married. Over the course of many years, Nicholas’s popularity spread and he became
known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his
death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get
married. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the
Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas
maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland.
Did You Know?
The Salvation Army has been sending Santa Claus-clad donation collectors into the streets since the


St. Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th
century. In December 1773, and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of
Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.
The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint
Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical
Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. The background of the
engraving contains now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over
a fireplace. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he
referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. As his
prominence grew, Sinter Klaas 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.”


Gift-giving, mainly centered around children, has been an important part of the Christmas celebration
since the holiday’s rejuvenation in the early 19th century. Stores began to advertise Christmas
shopping in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday
advertisements, which often featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus. In 1841, thousands
of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. It was only a matter of
time before stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a “live”
Santa Claus. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money to pay for the free Christmas
meals they provided to needy families. They began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus
suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations. Those familiar Salvation
Army Santas have been ringing bells on the street corners of American cities ever since.


In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three
daughters entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” Moore’s poem, which he was initially
hesitant to publish due to the frivolous nature of its subject, is largely responsible for our modern
image of Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf” with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to
ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head! Although some of Moore’s imagery was probably
borrowed from other sources, his poem helped popularize the now-familiar image of a Santa Claus
who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve–in “a miniature sleigh” led by eight flying
reindeer–leaving presents for deserving children. “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” created a
new and immediately popular American icon. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on
Moore’s poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His
cartoon, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full,
white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright
red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.


18th-century America’s Santa Claus was not the only St. Nicholas-inspired gift-giver to make an
appearance at Christmastime. Similar figures were popular all over the world. Christkind or Kris
Kringle was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. Meaning
“Christ child,” Christkind is an angel-like figure often accompanied by St. Nicholas on his holiday
missions. In Scandinavia, a jolly elf named Jultomten was thought to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn
by goats. English legend explains that Father Christmas visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill
children’s stockings with holiday treats. Pere Noel is responsible for filling the shoes of French
children. In Russia, it is believed that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the wise
men wrong directions to Bethlehem so that they couldn’t find Jesus. Later, she felt remorseful, but
could not find the men to undo the damage. To this day, on January 5, Babouschka visits Russian
children leaving gifts at their bedsides in the hope that one of them is the baby Jesus and she will be
forgiven. In Italy, a similar story exists about a woman called La Befana, a kindly witch who rides a
broomstick down the chimneys of Italian homes to deliver toys into the stockings of lucky children.


Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all,” was born over a hundred years after his eight flying
counterparts. The red-nosed wonder was the creation of Robert L. May, a copywriter at the
Montgomery Ward department store.
In 1939, May wrote a Christmas-themed story-poem to help bring holiday traffic into his store. Using
a similar rhyme pattern to Moore’s “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” May told the story of
Rudolph, a young reindeer who was teased by the other deer because of his large, glowing, red
nose. But, When Christmas Eve turned foggy and Santa worried that he wouldn’t be able to deliver
gifts that night, the former outcast saved Christmas by leading the sleigh by the light of his red nose.
Rudolph’s message—that given the opportunity, a liability can be turned into an asset—proved
popular. Montgomery Ward sold almost two and a half million copies of the story in 1939. When it
was reissued in 1946, the book sold over three and half million copies. Several years later, one of
May’s friends, Johnny Marks, wrote a short song based on Rudolph’s story (1949). It was recorded
by Gene Autry and sold over two million copies. Since then, the story has been translated into 25
languages and been made into a television movie, narrated by Burl Ives, which has charmed
audiences every year since 1964

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