Kristine has a B.A. in journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. specializing in American history from the University of Michigan.
The iconic image of Santa Claus is as much a part of the American Christmas tradition as glittering trees and stockings hanging by the fireplace. But the origin of this famous holiday figure is not American; it is rooted deep in traditions brought to America by European immigrants.
The Legend of St. Nicholas
The legend of Santa Claus evolved from the story of St. Nicholas who lived in the Mediterranean region during the time of the Roman Empire. According to the National Geographic article, “From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: The Surprising Origins of Kris Kringle,” Nicholas was born in the latter part of the third century around 280 C.E.
Most scholars believe he was born in Patara, Lycia, which is now part of Turkey but was at the time considered part of Greece according to the Biography.com article “St. Nicholas.” After losing both of his parents as a young man, he became a devout Christian and used his family's inheritance to aid the poor and needy.
Eventually, Nicholas became the bishop of Myra, a small town now known as Demre in modern Turkey. Nicholas was a staunch defender of Christian doctrine during the Great Persecution by the Romans in 303 C.E. when priests and other Christians were compelled to either renounce Christianity or face execution (Biography.com).
Persecution and Subsequent Miracles
Nicholas himself was arrested for defying the edicts and was imprisoned for several years before the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan and ended Christian persecutions in 313 C.E.
Many stories highlight Nicholas' generosity. One describes how he helped three poor sisters whose father did not have enough money for their dowries, which were required at the time to secure marriages. Legend describes how their father was considering selling them into servitude because he did not have the money to find them suitable husbands (Biography.com).
According to the story, Nicholas secretly entered their house on three separate occasions during the night and left bags of money for their father to use as dowries. Another story describes how he defended three men who were falsely imprisoned and sentenced to death. Through his intervention, Nicholas was able to secure their release.
Several miracles were attributed to Nicholas. One describes how he saved the lives of a group of sailors caught in a violent storm by calming the winds and halting the rain. Another tells of how he restored life to three young boys who had been murdered and dismembered by a butcher according to the History.com article, “Santa Claus.”
Death and Sainthood
Nicholas is believed to have died on December 6, 343 C.E., which is celebrated as his feast day in the Catholic Church. Stories of his miracles and his tireless work for the poor began to spread following his death. Nicholas was recognized as a saint long before canonization was officially established in the 10th century by the church. During this period, saints were declared by consent rather than by official canonization (St. Nicholas Center).
St. Nicholas became known as the protector of children and sailors. Because of his generosity, he was also associated with gift-giving. His popularity was immense in Europe up until the 1500s when the Reformation movement led to the creation of Protestantism. This movement discontinued the practice of honoring saints (Biography.com).
From about the 11th century until the Reformation, St. Nicholas Day was celebrated on December 6th as a day to give gifts. This tradition remained popular in Holland even after most of Europe began honoring Christkindl, the celebration of gifts brought in honor of the Christ Child that was popularized by Martin Luther (St. Nicholas Center). Christkindl would eventually morph into the modern-day Christmas celebration
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On the evening before December 6th, Dutch children would put out their shoes outside their doors. Sint Nikolaas, or Sinterklaas, would leave candy and small gifts in their shoes (St. Nicholas Center).
Arrival in the United States
When Dutch immigrants began to arrive in the New World in the early 1700s and settle in the Hudson River area of what is now New York State, they brought the legend of Sinterklaas with them. In 1804, New York Historical Society member John Pintard gifted woodcuts of Sinterklaas to the other society members at their annual meeting. The engraving showed the saint filling stockings hung near a fireplace with toys and fruit (History.com).
In 1809, writer Washington Irving helped to further develop the legend of Sinterklaas in America when he named St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. The popularity of Sinterklaas quickly began to grow across the young nation. He was described in articles and literature “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’” (History.com).
Gradually, Saint Nicholas became associated more and more with the Christmas holiday and less with his feast day of December 6th. Sinterklaas gradually became known as Santa Claus, a mysterious figure who delivered gifts to deserving children on December 25th.
His popularity was cemented in American culture when Clement Clarke Moore published his 1820 poem "An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas.” Moore describes Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf” in the form of a heavy-set man who fills stockings and leaves presents for children. The story tells of Santa entering and exiting homes through the chimneys and traveling the world in a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer (Biography.com).
The Jolly Man in Red
The modern image of Santa Claus with a full white beard can be credited to cartoonist Thomas Nast. During Christmas in 1862, Nast drew an image of Santa Claus as a small elf visiting a Civil War camp. This depiction appeared on the January 3, 1863 cover of Harper’s Weekly, according to The Vintage News article “Thomas Nast—The Man Who Invented Santa Claus.”
Prior to Nast’s depiction, Santa Claus' appearance had varied widely, bnut something about the way Nast depicted the character struck a chord with the American public. Over the next 30 years, Nast would continue to refine his depiction of Santa.
At one point in the 1880s, he changed the color of Santa’s coat from tan to red, solidifying the image of the jolly man in red we know today (The Vintage News). It is also believed that the story of Santa’s workshop at the North Pole was the result of a Nast illustration.
The Coca-Cola Campaign
Nast's depiction of Santa Claus would become the inspiration for Coca-Cola Company’s modern Santa Claus campaign. According to the Coca-Cola article, “Five Things You Never Knew About Santa Claus and Coca-Cola,” the company has been using Santa Claus in its holiday advertising since the 1920s. These ads appeared, among other places, in the Saturday Evening Post.
As part of their Christmas advertising campaign in 1930, artist Fred Mizen depicted a department store Santa drinking a bottle of Coke. In the following years, the company “wanted the campaign to show a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic.” In the following years, the company would develop advertising campaigns depicting Santa Claus himself, not just a man dressed as Santa (Coca-Cola).
Artist Haddon Sundblom would develop many of the Santa images for the company's campaigns over the next 30 years. He based his creations on the Santa described in Moore’s poem "An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas” and depicted the jolly old elf playing with toys, reading letters from children, and—of course—drinking Coca-Cola.
The paintings Sundblom created for the advertising campaigns became so iconic they have been shown in museums around the world, including the Louvre in Paris, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, according to the company. The images of Santa Claus the company uses in their Christmas advertising campaigns today are often based on Sundblom’s original creations and are largely responsible for the popular image of the Santa Claus we now see.
From Bishop to Saint to Commercial Legend
The legend of St. Nick began with the life and deeds of a Greek bishop in the fourth century. It came to life with the depiction of a jolly man wearing a red suit with white fur trim in the 1880s. Through stories, legends, and imagination, Saint Nicholas has become the Santa Claus we know and love today.
Resources and Further Reading
- Biography.com (2019, December 12). “St. Nicholas.” Biography.
- Blazeski, Goran (2016, December 9). “Thomas Nast: The Man Who Invented Santa Claus.” The Vintage News.
- Encyclopaedia Brittanica Editors. “Santa Claus.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica.
- Handerk, Brian (2018, December 25). “From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: The Surprising Origins of Kris Kringle.” National Geographic.
- History.com editors (2010, February 16). “Santa Claus.” History.
- Stnicholascenter.org. “St. Nicholas FAQs.” St. Nicholas Center.
- The Coca-Cola Company. “Five Things You Never Knew About Santa Claus and Coca-Cola.”
- Whychristmas.com. “St. Nicholas, Santa Claus and Father Christmas.” WhyChristmas?
- Yourdictionary.com. “St. Nicholas.” Biography.yourdictionary.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.