Origin of Santa Claus

The Christmas season roars upon us in the United States with such fanfare that we scarcely have a second to contemplate its true meaning and the genesis behind many of our modern-day traditions. 

What do we know? We know that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus who was born to save humanity by eventually dying for our sins. Very simple.

So where did the robust man from the North Pole, with the white beard, dressed in red who gives out presents from a sleigh come from? It doesn't exactly seem to tie in with the actual meaning of the holiday. 

Let's be sentimental, though, for a moment. Even as adults, we all have to admit there is something enchanting and exciting about waiting for this chubby fellow on Christmas Eve to drop goodies down the chimney. 

Back to topic...WHO IN THE WORLD IS SANTA CLAUS? Why is he so concerned with children being good or bad, and why does he live on a giant floating block of ice with approximately 13000 feet of water under it? 

Who, When & Where?

To answer all of these pressing questions, we must take a significant leap back in time to the third and fourth century AD to discuss the life of a boy called Nicholas. Nicholas was born around 280 AD in a place known as Patara, near the Roman town Myra, now part of modern-day Turkey.

As a child, Nicholas' parents were of the Christian faith and guided their son to study the religion and say his prayers. Nicholas also had an uncle Nicholas, an abbot, whom he'd often visit at the local monastery. These family influences contributed to Nicholas' decision to live a holy life of Christian teachings and values.

When Nicholas was still young, his parents died from what was likely the Cyprian plague. Orphaned, Nicholas went to live with his uncle previously mentioned. He continued his studies of Christianity, became a monk, and embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. By 303 AD, Nicholas had become the bishop of Myra, which coincided with the Great Persecution.

The Great Persecution occurred between 303 and 313 AD. During this time, the Romans, and all of their authoritarian fury, forced devoted Christians to reject Christianity to accept a polytheist persuasion. Nicholas' faith far exceeded his fear of the Romans. For many years during the Great Persecution, Nicholas found himself imprisoned for defending his religion until the end of this time of the atrocity.

Legend Has It

As a monk and a bishop, Nicholas dedicated himself to helping the sick and the poor. He traveled the rural lands giving away his inherited wealth to those who needed it most. Over time many stories and legends accumulated about this beloved man and his selfless acts of kindness. A few of the more notable myths that earned Nicholas the title of protector of children and sailors are as follows:

During a severe storm in the Mediterranean Sea, a ship capsized on shallow water, and the occupants became stranded. Unable to find a solution, the sailors called upon Nicholas for help. Nicholas appeared, assisted the sailors with their dilemma, and soon they were sailing once again. Before they could fully thank him, Nicholas disappeared.

While traveling, Nicholas entered an inn where something felt suspicious. He had a feeling that there was a crime committed, and he wasn't wrong. The innkeeper had killed three boys and pickled their bodies in barrels in the basement of the inn. Nicholas had the innkeeper taken care of for his transgression, and he resurrected the three boys.

Nicholas met a family with a perplexing situation. A poor father had three daughters and planned on selling them into prostitution and slavery in exchange for money. Nicholas saved the three girls by giving their father a dowry so the girls can go on to get married.

Story after story of the wonderful deeds performed by Nicholas disseminated throughout Europe and especially so in Holland until Nicholas morphed into the deliverer of gifts to children from 1200-1500 AD, during which Nicholas became a saint. Added to his list of characteristics, Nicholas spread the word to children to be good and say their prayers.

 Interim Times

Nicholas died in 343 AD on December 6th. Millions celebrate his feast day on this date. Nicholas' final resting place remains a mystery. One such theory states Italian sailors stole his remains and buried them in the Basilica di San Nicola on the southeast coast of Italy. When the church went through renovations, workers found human remains.

After the 1500s, with the Protestant Reformation, the belief in Saints fell out of fashion. The Reformation is the catalyst that sparked the connection between the feast day of St. Nick and Christmas. The Baby Jesus now assumed the gift giver's role, and December 25th a day of giving and receiving.

 Modern Day Santa Claus

In the late eighteenth century, Dutch immigrants brought the notion of St. Nicholas to New York. They would host gatherings to celebrate the anniversary of the Saint's death. It is the Dutch who also gave us the name Santa Claus. Sint Nikolaas is Dutch for Saint Nicholas, and Sinter Klaas is the shortened form of Sint Nikolaas.

Santa Claus is a fictional character loosely based on the actual life deeds of St. Nicholas. The modern image of Santa Claus holds no resemblance to this historical figure, who was actually thin and olive-skinned. 

A rise of writers like Washington Irving developed their own portrayal of the elusive charitable figure. In 1809, Irving released a book entitled Knickerbocker's History of New York. Irving described St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York who flew over rooftops in a wagon dropping presents for good little boys and girls while smoking a pipe. 

Later that century, cartoonist Thomas Nast, presented the world with the rolly polly, North Pole dwelling philanthropist we've become so familiar.  Nast drew the correlation between snow being common during Christmas and the North Pole, where it always snows.  

And there you have it! The brief version of how Santa Claus evolved, collided with, and became a symbolic figure of Christmas. After reading this, never underestimate visual artists and writer's creative abilities to incorporate ancient history with the zeitgeist of an era to influence future events.


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