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Just Who is Santa Claus?

Santa Claus is coming to town! Before the jolly old elf slides down your chimney what do we really know about Santa? Who is he? Who was he?


The story of the man we now know as Santa Claus dates all the way back to the third century with the legend of St. Nicholas. There are many legends surrounding him most of which focus on his piety and kindness, from giving away all of his inherited wealth to travel the countryside helping the poor to becoming known as the protector of sailors and children. By the Renaissance (1300 – 1600) he was the most popular saint in Europe. His popularity even survived the Protestant Reformation when the veneration of saints began to be strongly discouraged.


So, he was popular in Europe, how did he become part of American culture? St. Nicholas first gained ground in popular culture in the early 1770s. In December of 1773 and again in 1774 a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the saint’s anniversary. The name Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas: Sinter Nikolaas and then later simply, Sinter Klaas and finally becoming Santa Claus. 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 rather satirical book: The History of New York.


18th Century America’s Santa Claus wasn’t the only St. Nicholas-inspired gift giver to make an appearance at Christmastime. There are others all over the world who bring joy to good little boys and girls: Christkind (Kris Kringle) for Swiss and German children is an angel-like figure who accompanied St. Nicholas on his holiday missions. In Scandinavia, a jolly elf Jultomten delivered gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. In England, Father Christmas fills children’s stockings on Christmas Eve. In France Pere Noel fills the shoes of French children.


Did you know that the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was written in 1822? Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister wrote the poem for his three daughters. His poem helped popularize the now-familiar image of Santa Claus flying from house to house in a reindeer-drawn sleigh. In 1881 cartoonist Thomas Nast drawn on Moore’s poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern imagery of Santa Claus. It was Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, the North Pole workshop and Mrs. Claus.


How did Santa Claus end up at the local mall? Since gift-giving is mainly centered around children and has been an important part of Christmas celebrations since the early 19th century, stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820 with a Santa theme. In the early 1890s the Salvation Army needed to raise money to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided to needy families and began dressing up unemployed men as Santa Claus and sending them out to collect donations. Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells on street corners and helping pull children (and parents) into stores ever since.



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