The story of how Santa Claus became Santa Claus (2023)

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Father Christmas, Father Christmas, Santa Claus - whatever his name is, everyone knows the story of this plump, cheerful gift bringer. Or is it?

VonBrian Craft

Published December 25, 2018

15 minutes read

Any child can tell you where Santa Claus is from - the North Pole. But his historic voyage is even longer and more amazing than his annual one-night circumnavigation of the world.

(Video) The Story of Santa Claus | Christmas Stories for Kids | Edewcate Children Stories

The ancestor of modern American Santa Claus was born in the Mediterranean region during the Roman Empire, his legend developed throughout northern Europe, and he eventually took his now familiar form on the shores of the New World. Who is this Santa's ancestor and how has he changed over time? (See "Christmas in July – At a Santa Summer Camp.")

<h3><strong>In cultures and countries around the world, Saint Nick plays a central role in the celebration - and commercialization - of Christmas.</strong></h3><p dir="ltr"><strong>On this photo from a January 1957 National Geographic article, Alaskan <a href=" ">reindeer</a> in Santa's sleigh during the <a href="">Peace Contest</a> in Washington, D.C. draw. The annual event, which also includes the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, began under President Calvin Coolidge in 1923.</strong></p><p>The Santa Claus we know today bears little resemblance to <a href="http: // 12/131219-santa-origin-story-christmas-facts-saint-nicholas/">the original Nicholas</a>. Still, the character has proven to be an enduring icon of Christmas. For many people around the world, the cheerful, red-clad, white-bearded character is a central part of holiday celebration - and commercialization.</p><p>While you wait for Santa to come down your chimney tonight, browse through these images of Old Saint Nick from the National Geographic Photo Library.</p><p><em> - By Anna Lukacs, photo gallery by Kathy Moran</em></p>

Quite a jolly old elf

In cultures and countries around the world, Saint Nick plays a central role in the celebration - and commercialization - of Christmas.

In this photo from a January 1957 National Geographic article, AlaskanreindeerPull Santa's sleigh during thePageant of Peacein Washington, D.C. The annual event, which includes the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, began in 1923 under President Calvin Coolidge.

The Santa Claus we know today bears little resemblance to himthe original Santa. Still, the character has proven to be an enduring icon of Christmas. For many around the world, the cheery, red-clad, white-bearded figure is central to the holiday celebration — and commercialization.

While you wait for Santa to come down your chimney tonight, browse through these images of Old Saint Nick from National Geographic's photo library.

(Video) How Santa Claus Came to Be

– By Anna Lukacs, photo gallery by Kathy Moran

Photography by Volkmar K. Wentzel, Nat Geo Image Collection

Jolly old Santa Claus?

Every December 6, believers celebrate St. Nicholas Day in cities around the world, with the largest being in Europe. Images of St. Nicholas vary considerably, but none of them resemble the ruddy-cheeked, white-bearded old man seen everywhere today. One of the most compelling views of the real St. Nick who lived in the third and fourth centuries was not created by ancient artists but through the use of modern forensic facial reconstructions.

Scholarly debate continues to this day as to where the remains of the Greek bishop rest, but traditional belief has been that Saint Nicholas' bones were stolen by Italian sailors in the 11th century and placed in the church's cryptBasilica of San Nicolaon the southeast coast of Italy. When the crypt was repaired in the 1950s, the saint's skull and bones were documented with X-rays and thousands of detailed measurements. (For theories about other possible resting places of Saint Nicholas, read: "Could Santa's remains be in this Turkish church?")

Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist at the University of Manchester, England, used this data and modern software simulations to create a modern reconstruction of the long-dead man. Wilkinson gave a human face to Santa's original namesake - one with a badly broken nose, possibly sustained during the persecution of Christians under Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Much of their work is inevitably subject to interpretation. The size and shape of the facial muscles that once covered Nicholas' skull had to be deduced, and the shape of that skull itself was reconstructed from two-dimensional data. Digital artists added details based on best guesses, including the olive skin most common among Mediterranean Greeks like Nicholas, brown eyes and the gray hair of a 60-year-old man.

"We've certainly lost some of the level of detail you'd get from working with photos, but we think we'll get that close," Wilkinson said in the project's BBC Two feature film, entitledThe real face of Santa Claus.

From bishop to gift giver

How did this Santa become the Christmas present bringer at the North Pole? The original saint was a Greek born in the late third century around AD 280. He became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey. Neither fat nor cheerful, Nicholas gained a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of Church doctrine during the Great Persecution of 303, when Bibles were burned and priests were tricked into renouncing Christianity or facing execution.

Nicholas defied these edicts and spent years in prison before the Roman Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan in 313. The fame of Nicholas lived long after his death (on December 6 in the middle of the fourth century, around 343) because he was associated with many miracles and reverence for him continues to this day regardless of his Christmas connection. He is theprotector of many kinds of people,from orphans to sailors to prisoners.

Nicholas became known among the saints because he was the patron saint of so many groups. Around 1200, the University of Manitoba historian explainedGerry Bowler, author ofSanta Claus: A BiographyAs a children's patron and magical gift bringer, he became known through two great stories from his life.

In the better-known story, three young girls are saved from a life of prostitution when the young Bishop Nicholas secretly delivers three sacks of gold to their indebted father to use for their dowry.

"The other story isn't as well known today, but was enormously well known in the Middle Ages," Bowler said. Nicholas entered an inn whose landlord had just murdered three boys and placed their dismembered bodies in casks. The bishop not only felt the crime, but brought the victims back to life. "It's one of the things that made him the patron saint of children."

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For several hundred years, around 1200-1500, Saint Nicholas was the undisputed bringer of gifts and the instigator of celebrations around his feast day, December 6th. The austere saint took on some aspects of earlier European deities, such as the Roman Saturn or the Norse Odin, who appeared as white-bearded men and possessed magical powers such as flight. He also made sure the children kept to the line by saying their prayers and practicing good behavior.

But after thatThe Protestant Reformation began in the 1500s,Saints like Nicholas fell out of favor in much of northern Europe. "That was problematic," Bowler said. "You still love your children, but who brings them the presents now?"

Bowler said that in many cases that job fell to baby Jesus and the date was moved to Christmas instead of December 6. "But the infant's carrying capacity is very limited, and he's not very scary either," Bowler said. "So the Christ Child often got a creepy helper for carrying presents and threatening children, which doesn't seem appropriate from the point of view of the Child Jesus."

Some of these sinister Germanic characters were based on Nicholas again, no longer as a saint but as a menacing sidekick like Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas). These figures expected good behavior or forced children to suffer consequences such as flogging or kidnapping. As dissimilar as they appear to the Jolly Man in Red, these colorful characters would later figure in the development of Santa himself. (Related:"Who is Krampus? Explains the terrible Christmas devil.")

Come to America

In the Netherlands, children and families simply refused to give up Santa Claus as a gift bringer. they broughtSaint Nicholaswith them to the colonies of the New World, where legends of the shaggy and sinister Germanic gift-bringer persisted.

But in early America, Christmas wasn't much like the modern holiday. The holiday was shunned in New England, and elsewhere it had become a bit like the pagan Saturnalia that once took its place on the calendar. "'It was hailed as a sort of booze-fueled, outdoor scrappy community blowout," Bowler said. "It was the same in England. And there was no special, magical gift bringer."

Then, in the early decades of the 19th century, all that changed thanks to a succession of poets and writers who strove to make Christmas a family celebration - by reviving and reimagining Saint Nicholas.

Washington Irvings Buch von 1809Knickerbocker's History of New Yorkfirst portrayed a pipe-smoking Santa who floated over the rooftops in a flying chariot, gave good girls and boys presents and changed bad ones.

In 1821, an anonymous illustrated poem entitled "The Children's Friend" went much further in shaping the modern day Santa Claus and associating him with Christmas. "Here we finally have the look of Santa Claus," Bowler said. "They took the magical gift bringer of Saint Nicholas, stripped him of all religious attributes, and clothed this Santa Claus in the pelts of those shaggy Germanic gift bringers."

This character brought gifts to good girls and boys, but he also carried a birch rod, says the poem, which "directs a parent's hand to use when his sons reject the way of virtue." Santa's narrow wagon was pulled by a single reindeer - but both driver and team would receive a major makeover next year.

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In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote: "A visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas,” for his six children, with no intention of reinforcing the young Santa phenomenon. It was published anonymously the next year, and to this day the plump, jolly Santa Claus it describes rides a sleigh driven by eight familiar reindeer.

"It went viral," Bowler said. But familiar as the poem is, it still leaves much to the imagination, and in the 19th century Santa Claus appeared in different colored clothing, in sizes from small to massive, and in a variety of different guises. "I have a wonderful picture of him that looks exactly like George Washington riding a broomstick," Bowler said.

It wasn't until the late 19th century, he added, that the image of Santa Clause was standardized as a full-grown adult, dressed in red with white fur trimmings, venturing from the North Pole in a reindeer sleigh and keeping an eye on children's behavior.

This Santa's happy, chubby, grandfatherly face was mostly created byThomas Nass, the great political cartoonist of a time when there were many. "However, Nast left him half-size," added Bowler, "and in, in my opinion, rather indecent long johns."

Once firmly established, North America's Santa Claus then made a sort of return migration to Europe, replacing the creepy gift bringers and taking on local names like Père Noël (France) or Father Christmas (Britain). "What he's done is pretty much tame these Grimms' Fairy Tale-type characters from the late Middle Ages," Bowler said.

The Santa Problem

While he no doubt means well, Santa Claus has certainly stirred up more than his fair share of controversy, and continues to do so.

In Russia, Santa Claus came into conflict with Joseph Stalin. Before the Russian Revolution, Father Frost (Santa Claus) was a popular Christmas character, taking on characteristics of proto-Santas like the Dutch Sinterklaas. "When the Soviet Union was formed, the communists abolished Christmas and the gift bringers," Bowler said.

"When Stalin needed to build support in the 1930s, he allowed Grandfather Frost to reappear not as a Christmas present bringer, but as a New Year present bringer," Bowler added. Attempts to oust Christmas in Russia were ultimately unsuccessful, as were Soviet attempts to spread a secular version of Father Frost, complete with a blue coat to avoid Christmas confusion, across Europe.

"Everywhere they went after World War II, the Soviets tried to replace the native gift-givers in places like Poland or Bulgaria," Bowler explained. "But the locals just held their noses and went back to their own traditions until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989."

Santa Claus remains a politicized figure around the world. American troops spread their version of the happy man around the world in the years immediately following World War II, and he was universally welcomed, Bowler said, as a symbol of American generosity in rebuilding war-torn countries.

Today, however, people in many nations have Santa Claus on their own naughty list, either because he represents the secular side of Christmas at the expense of the religious. Sometimes Santa gets rejected because he is not a local. "In places like the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Austria and Latin America, they all have very strong anti-Santa movements because they're trying to preserve their native Christmas gift bringers and customs and protect them from the North American Santa Claus," he said.

Such efforts seem unlikely to stem the growing interest in Santa Claus, but their organizers may be sparing him a few stops in his busy Christmas Eve schedule.

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This story has been updated. It was originally released on December 20, 2013.


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