Santa Claus developed from religious traditions and secular Christmas practices. The character’s earliest influence is the fourth-century Turkish Christian bishop St. Nicholas who was known for being a kind and generous man. For example, there is a well-known story that St. Nicholas saved three daughters from being sold into prostitution by supplying them with dowries so they could secure husbands.
St. Nicholas died in the mid-fourth century and December sixth became his feast day. Into the Renaissance, parents celebrated St. Nicholas Day by giving their children gifts. St. Nicholas was given qualities that resembled the Norse god Odin; an old man with a white beard who could fly and who encouraged children to practice moral behavior. St. Nicholas remained a popular saint throughout Europe until the Protestant Reformation of the mid-1500s, when changing religious attitudes discouraged Christians from honoring saints.
The Dutch, however, never stopped appreciating St. Nicholas. To continue honoring him, they invented the character of Sinterklaas, whose name was the Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas. Men dressed up as Sinterklaas by donning the robes and mitre and distributing candy and other treats to children and the poor. Dutch families and friends gathered to celebrate the saint on the night of December 5, the day before St. Nicholas Day. Children would then leave their shoes by the fireplace so that Sinterklaas would leave presents in them by the next morning.
These Sinterklaas traditions arrived in the United States, particularly in the New York region, by the late 1700s as it was settled by the Dutch. It was in the United States that St. Nicholas started to modernize and transform into what he would become, the Christmas character known as Santa Claus, with this name being derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas.
Christmases in early America were raucous, alcohol-driven celebrations and were not accommodating to children. In the early 1800s, several American writers and other figures were determined to reinvent Christmas as a family holiday, and used the Dutch St. Nicholas traditions to produce the Santa Claus figure.
These efforts included: Washington Irving’s book History of New York (1809) that described St. Nicholas as a man wearing a three-cornered hat and red waistcoat, smoking a pipe, and flying through the air in a wagon delivering presents to good children. The 1821 poem “The Children’s Friend” brought the emerging Santa Claus into modernity by describing a man dressed in furs carrying a birch rod (that could be used to punish disobedient children) and sitting in a sleigh being pulled by a reindeer. Clement Clarke Moore composed the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas” that described a fat, jolly Santa Claus who rides a flying sleigh.
Thomas Nast, a cartoonist, was responsible for standardizing the image of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly in the late 1800s. Nast portrayed Santa Claus as an obese, white-bearded, Caucasian old man wearing a red suit and furs and smoking a pipe. Nast images of Santa showed him carrying a sack full of toys and indicated Santa Claus could be contacted by writing to the North Pole.
Santa Claus was modernized once more in the early 1930s, when the Coca-Cola Company sought a realistic Santa image for one of its magazine advertisements. The company employed illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create the image. This Santa Claus first appeared in a 1931 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Later advertisements depicted the Santa figure delivering toys, reading a child’s letter, and visiting with children who waited for him to arrive at their home.
Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2016, “Santa Claus.”
Nast, Thomas Harper’s Weekly, 1881.