Will the Real Santa Claus Please Stand Up?

Merry Christmas! It’s that time of year when it seems the whole world gets wrapped up in the holidays. Being curious myself, I started wondering about the origins of the holiday of Christmas. In particular, I wanted to know more about Santa Claus. “The Church Lady” (Dana Carvey on SNL) did a hilarious skit about Santa many years ago, but I really haven’t heard much about Santa from a historical perspective. There’s actually quite a bit of mystery surrounding the old man. Want to know more about ole Saint Nick? Read on…

The name Santa Claus is an adaptation of the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” which means simply “Saint Nicholas.” Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, in modern day Turkey, during the 4th century. Among other saintly attributes, he was noted for the care of Children, generosity, and the giving of gifts. His feast on the 6th of December came to be celebrated in many countries with the giving of gifts. Saint Nicholas traditionally appeared in bishop-ly attire, accompanied by helpers, and inquired about the behavior of children during the past year before deciding whether they deserved a gift or not. By the 13th century Saint Nicholas was well known in the Netherlands, and the practice of gift-giving in his name spread to other parts of central and southern Europe. At the Reformation in 16th–17th century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, corrupted in English to Kris Kringle, and the date of giving gifts changed from December the 6th to Christmas Eve.

The modern popular image of Santa Claus, however, was created in the United States, and in particular in New York. The transformation was accomplished with the aid of six notable contributors including Washington Irving and the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902). Following the American Revolutionary War, some of the inhabitants of New York City sought out symbols of the city’s non-English past. New York had originally been established as the Dutch colonial town of New Amsterdam and the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition was reinvented as Saint Nicholas. In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and retroactively named Sancte Claus the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam, the Dutch name for New York City.

At his first American appearance in 1810, Santa Claus was drawn in bishops’ robes. However as new artists took over, Santa Claus developed more secular attire. Nast drew a new image of “Santa Claus” annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast’s Santa had evolved into the robed, fur clad, form we now recognize, perhaps based on the English figure of Father Christmas. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s.

Father Christmas, a jolly, well nourished, bearded man who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, predates the Santa Claus character. He is first recorded in early 17th century England, but was associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness rather than the bringing of gifts. In Victorian Britain, his image was remade to match that of Santa. The French Père Noël evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image. In Italy, Babbo Natale acts as Santa Claus, while La Befana is the bringer of gifts and arrives on the eve of the Epiphany. It is said that La Befana set out to bring the baby Jesus gifts, but got lost along the way. Now, she brings gifts to all children. In some cultures Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. In other versions, elves make the toys. His wife is referred to as Mrs. Claus.

Current tradition in several Latin American countries (such as Venezuela and Colombia) holds that while Santa makes the toys, he then gives them to the Baby Jesus, who is the one who actually delivers them to the children’s homes, a reconciliation between traditional religious beliefs and the iconography of Santa Claus imported from the United States.

Interesting stuff. Bishop Santa?! Baby Jesus delivering toys to kids in Venezuela?!

However you celebrate it, I hope that your Christmas is peaceful and joyful. We’ve got lots of great Christmas gift ideas at our website (TIP: Use the code BEAUTIFUL at checkout for a pretty nice discount on any items ordered)! Merry Christmas from all of us in 1000 Generations and don’t forget the real reason for the season: the birth of Christ.

With love,
Steven Andy

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