Love, Joy, Cheer, & Wonder, The Magical Legend of Santa Claus

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The History of Santa Claus, 1600 years in the Making

By Robert Matsumura, Contributing Writer

Santa Claus History Cover

As the holiday season rolls around, Santa Claus assumes center stage. But where exactly did this rotund, jovial old man in a red suit originate, and how did he become the iconic symbol of Christmas that he is today? In truth, the history of Santa Claus is a fascinating tale that intertwines folklore, legends, and a sprinkle of entrepreneurial ingenuity.

Santa Claus, Father Christmas illustrationSanta Claus, as we know him today, traces his roots back to a number of historical figures, each contributing to the contemporary version we know and love. Perhaps the earliest inspiration for Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas, a Christian bishop of the 4th century, renowned for his acts of kindness and gift-giving. In time, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, archers and brewers, among others.

In the British Isles, a character known as Father Christmas emerged during the mid-17th century and was frequently depicted as a bearded man garbed in green, symbolizing the spirit of the season. By the 18th century, however, the concepts of Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas merged, resulting in a hybrid figure that blended elements from both traditions.

Saint Nicoals, Santa ClausThe American version of Santa Claus began to take shape in the 18th century. Influenced by Dutch and German settlers, the name “Santa Claus” evolved from the Dutch term “Sinterklaas.” During this period, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”), a poem published in 1823, played a pivotal role in shaping the modern image of Santa. This poem described Santa as a rotund gift-giver in a red suit who utilized chimneys rather than the front door for his Christmas visits. The poem, attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, established not only Santa’s magical nighttime journey around the world delivering toys to children, but specified his vehicle of choice as a sleigh powered by eight reindeer with specific names and attributes. Also introduced in the poem was the idea of Santa monitoring children on his “naughty and nice” list and filling stockings accordingly.

A Santa Claus advertismentThe classic image of Santa Claus in a red suit with a white beard was tweaked further in the 1930s due to a marketing campaign by Coca-Cola. The company’s advertisements depicted Santa as plump, rosy-cheeked, and garbed in a red and white outfit and hat. Although Santa had been portrayed in robes of other colors prior to this marketing campaign, Coca-Cola’s version of Santa Claus was embraced by the popular imagination and remains the image we associate with him to this day.

As the holidays roll around, and images of Santa Claus abound, know that, like so many things in life, Santa has evolved from his ancient origins as Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas, to the iconic figure of Christmas cheer crafted by an imaginative poet and creative corporate advertising. One thing is for certain, whether you’re a child or an adult, the holidays would not be the same without Santa, his reindeer and the spirit of the season that he represents to so many around the world!