As a kid, you have looked forward to the nights when Santa Claus will visit your home to drop your Christmas present. And for sure, it took a lot of years for you to finally realize that the adorable guy in a red suit, complete with a reindeer-pulled sleigh isn’t exactly what you were made to believe.
Though at this point, you have already uncovered the truth that the gifts you found in your stockings were actually store-bought by your parents.
So when did the story about Santa Claus begun? Who is St. Nick and why was he associated with Christmas?
History of St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas, who’s now popularly known as Santa Claus, was a real person born in the 4th century. History tells that he came from a wealthy family and was raised in Patara (Asia Minor), before they moved to Myra (Demre in modern day Turkey). He was admired for his generosity and kindness; helping the poor and secretly giving presents to the needy.
At a young age, he was appointed as a Bishop of Myra thus, has been called The Boy Bishop. Over the course of many years, legends point to St. Nicholas as the patron of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated every Dec. 6 – which is said to be the anniversary of his death.
Does Santa Claus Live in North Pole?
Contrary to popular belief, St. Nick never lived anywhere near the North Pole. However, the myth of his move from Turkey to the North Pole is credited to American cartoonist, Thomas Nast who depicted Santa Claus in 33 drawings for Harper’s Weekly. He also illustrated the fabled location as the mythical Santa home.
What does St. Nicholas Actually Look Like?
St. Nick didn’t begin as the plump, jolly, white-bearded man we all know today. However, the same Nast portrayals established the image of St. Nick as a jolly, round belly guy in a red suit. Despite the earlier drawings of the gift-bringer, it was only Nast who changed the way children remember Santa Claus forever.
The Many Names of Santa Claus
There came a time when stories and traditions about St. Nicholas became unpopular. However, Santa Claus remained the gift bringer for the many. He came with so many aliases including:
Father Christmas or Old Man Christmas in UK particularly in England.
Père Nöel in France.
Christkind in Australia and Germany – the present-giver here is depicted as a golden-haired baby, with wings, symbolizing the newborn Jesus.
Kris Kringle (which means Christ Kind) in the early USA.
Sint Nikolaas in Netherlands.
How St. Nicholas became Santa Claus?
The name Santa Claus can be traced in the informal Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, which is an abbreviation of Sint Nikolaas. It was in the early 19th century when the stories of his generosity made its way to America through the Dutch settlers in New York.
In Dutch legends, Sinterklaas was imagined to carry a staff and rides a huge white horse. He is said to have mischievous helpers who eavesdrop in chimneys to find out whether the children were naughty or nice. Such features associate him with Odin, a god who was worshipped in North and Western Europe prior to Christianization.
The Pictorial Evolution of St. Nicholas
Before he became the jolly man in a red suit today, Mr. Claus has been under various guises. From the illustration of Aleksa Petrov to the most popular version of Thomas Nast, here’s a pictorial guide showing the evolution of St. Nicholas through the ages:
13th Century – An illustration of St. Nicholas "Lipensky” by Aleksa Petrov
This Russian icon from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod is the earliest portrayal of St. Nicholas to date. It depicts the good-hearted man in a traditional Bishop’s robes.
17th Century – Father Christmas as portrayed in The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas, a 1686 book written by Josiah King.
This picture is one of the earliest English examples of the personification of Christmas. It was released shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England after being banned in the Post-Civil War.
1810 – A print of St. Nicholas by Alexander Anderson
This image was handed out in the first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner of the New York Historical Society – an organization founded in 1804 by John Pintard, which promoted St. Nick as patron saint of both the society and city.
1863 – St. Nicholas in A Christmas Furlough by Thomas Nast
This initial illustration for the 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly is what established the Santa Claus that we know today. In his later drawings, Nast added the reindeers, the sleigh and the North Pole which became home to St. Nick and his workshop.
1864 – An illustration from Clement Moore’s poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas
Before the famous red suit, Santa was depicted wearing suits of different colors such as yellow, as pictured in the poem.
1868 – An advertisement for Sugar Plums shows Santa Claus in a red jacket.
Despite being depicted in a red suit, Santa Claus appears to be wearing a green hat and seems to have intentionally neglected his trousers.
1881 – A color version of the famous Nast drawing of the Merry Old Santa Claus, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly.
The Santa Claus we know today began to take shape in this drawing. The plumpness and the red suit that defines the gift-bringer is already present.
The Legends of Santa Claus
St. Nicholas and the Three Daughters
St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends - one of which is the popular story of how he saved the three daughters of an impoverished man from becoming slaves and prostitutes by presenting them with dowries so they could be married.
According to the legend, Nicholas secretly delivered a bag of gold to the eldest daughter, who at the time was at the right age for marriage. Later on, the same fortune happened for the second daughter and both became happily married. A popular version tells Nicholas threw the bags through the window and landed on their respective stockings which had been hung by the fire to dry. But, some accounts claim that Nicholas dropped the bag of gold down the chimney.
In his determination to discover his daughters’ benefactor, the poor father decided to keep watch all night by the time the youngest daughter was old enough for marriage. Nicholas, true to form, arrived and was seized. Since then, his identity and generosity were made known to all and anyone who receives unexpected gifts thanks Nicholas.
St. Nicholas Resurrects Three Pickled Boys
Another popular story tells how St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children. The legend has it that on his journey, the patron stopped on the way to retire for the night at an inn. In his sleep, he dreamed of a terrible crime that was committed in the building. Apparently, he discovered that the innkeeper had previously murdered three boys, dismembered their bodies and pickled them in a barrel. Upon learning this, Nicholas prayed fervently to God and the boys were raised to life, whole again.
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