St Nicholas was not from Lapland or the North Pole (traditional homes of Santa in Europe and the USA respectively). He wasn’t even from somewhere cold. St Nicholas hailed from the heat and dust of the country we now know as Turkey. He was probably born in the 1st century AD – making him almost 2000 years old.
To be truly accurate, it’s worth noting that the historical St Nicholas would not even have been white. All in all, the red-cheeked, fur-robed Caucasian dashing through the snow that we see on Christmas cards today is a very far cry from the original!
However, the historical St Nicholas was as kind and generous as the modern Santa. As a young man who inherited a vast fortune, he turned his back on pomp and ceremony and set off on foot through the countryside, devoting himself to the care of those who were poor and sick. During the course of his nomadic youth, he gave away every single penny of his fortune to those in need. The most famous story about him goes like this:
While walking through the slums of ancient Turkey, young Nicholas heard of a man with several daughters who had fallen upon hard times. These were dark and misogynistic days, and a woman living at that time had very few options available to her: she could stay supported by her father for the rest of her life, or she could marry and spend her days supported by her husband, or she could try and make her own way in a world which offered absolutely no respectable employment options for women.
In order to marry at that time, the father of the bride would be expected to pay a dowry which would help to set up the new couple. Fathers would literally pay another man to take on the ‘burden’ of supporting their daughter (this is still the case today in many parts of the world, and only stopped being customary in the UK relatively recently). Unable to afford a dowry for any of his daughters and unable to suppo,rt the family anymore, this man had determined that he would sell his daughters into prostitution.
It’s exactly as bad as it sounds – but you must remember that women were viewed in those days as the property of their male family members (and burdensome property as that). What’s more, the poor daughters had few to no rights, and could do nothing at all about their situation. Whatever their father decided to do with them, the law would support him 100%
Hearing this sad tale, St Nicholas took pity. In the dead of night, he crept by the house of the poor man and his daughters and slipped a large quantity of gold into their shoes (which they had left neatly on the doorstep) – enough gold for a dowry for every daughter. This meant that their father could sell them into marriage rather than into prostitution. Hopefully they found nice, kind men who loved them!
St Nicholas became a very popular saint. As was common for saints worshipped, his skeleton was preserved – and you can still see it to this day (although it is now divided between two churches, one in Turkey and one in Venice). Analysis done on the bones in 2004 determined that the man to whom they belonged would have been slender, that he had suffered damage to his face (possibly due to the persecution of Christians at the time when he was alive), and that he had been 70 or so when he died. So, to imagine the ‘real’ Santa Claus, you need to picture an elderly, rather skinny Turkish man with a broken nose and a scarred face.
St Nicholas is the patron saint of (among other things)…
· Repentant thieves
And, of course,
His feast day is not, as you might expect, 24th December. It is in Advent, though. St Nicholas’s Day is the 6th December.
Saint Nicholas becomes Sinterklaas
St Nicholas remained popular over the millennia which followed his death. Because of the proximity of his saint’s day to Christmas, traditions involving the two quickly got mixed up together.
For example, in the Benelux countries it was common for ‘St Nicholas Fairs’ to be held on 6th December. These were largely for sailors and merchants, who would meet to celebrate their patron saint. They’d take the opportunity to trade and sell their wares at the same time, so these fairs quickly became known as excellent opportunities to grab an exotic bargain or two in preparation for Christmas. People would travel to St Nicholas Fairs from far and wide, stocking up on interesting sweet treats for Christmas Day – but they’d often also get a few small trinkets as well, for the excited children who could not wait 24 days to see what their parents had got from the fair.
Before long, it became traditional in The Netherlands and surrounding areas for 6th December to be a day for children (with Christmas Day itself being more of a grown-up feast). Following St Nicholas’s example, small toys, or treats, or coins would be hidden in shoes or stockings on the 5th December, for the children to find the next morning. It’s only a short step from there to telling the children that ‘Sinterklaas’ (as the Dutch pronounced ‘St Nicholas’) himself had delivered these treats.
Sinterklaas becomes Santa Claus
When Dutch settlers founded the colony of New Amsterdam (now New York) in North America, they brought their Sinterklaas traditions with them. As the American colonies shaped themselves into the modern United States, the traditions of Sinterklaas became an integral part of how Americans began to identify themselves and to develop their own culture. As English became the official language of the USA, ‘Sinterklaas’ got Americanised to ‘Santa Claus’.
In 1822, the Reverend Clement Clark Moore wrote the poem ‘T’was the Night Before Christmas’, in which he described Santa flying through the sky on a reindeer-pulled sleigh and popping down chimneys to deliver presents to good little boys and girls. The poem was an instant hit with American children, and the imagery has stuck. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Santa really came into his own. And it all happened because of Christmas shopping.
Prior to the 19th century, commercial goods were not as major an aspect of Christmas as they are today. While people would buy in treats and trinkets for themselves and their families, the festival was mainly about eating and drinking in the company of one’s loved ones. This all changed with the arrival of department stores in the USA from the 1840s onwards. Now, big piles of presents under the Christmas tree took centre stage – and Santa quickly became embroiled in it all.
In 1841, a shop in Philadelphia placed a life-sized model of Santa Claus in their window. To their surprise, thousands of children flocked to see it (and brought their parents, and their parents’ money). The Shopping Mall Santa was born. In no time at all, shops across America were luring in Christmas shoppers with ‘live’ Santas.
But there was a problem: nobody could agree on what Santa looked like. Most agreed that he was a portly, white-bearded gent – but what did he wear? How could any shop claim to have the ‘real’ Santa working in their grotto if Santa was not immediately identifiable by his uniform? In stepped cartoonist Thomas Nash to lay the matter to rest. Drawing on Moore’s poem, he sketched a Santa in bright red, fur-trimmed robes, presiding (with new addition Mrs Claus) over a North Pole workshop full of elves industriously making toys for well-behaved children.
And Santa Claus – the red-robed, sleigh-driving, chimney-driving, elf-employing, North-dwelling chubby man we know today – was born. And he’s not changed much since. But remember – traditions are very flexible things. The best ones adapt in order to survive. It’s doubtful that this is Santa Claus’s final form. Keep an eye on him – he’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve!
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