The History of St. Nicholas, Santa Claus & Father Christmas

Bishop St. Nicholas lived in Myra in Asia Minor in the fourth century (now called Turkey). He had a lot of money because when he was young, his parents died and left him a lot of money. He was also known for being very kind. He helped the poor and gave secret gifts to people who needed them. We are curious to know if any stories about St. Nicholas are true, but there are many!

Image from the St. Nicholas Center

A poor man with three daughters lived in a small house. The man was so poor that he couldn’t pay a dowry for his daughters, so they couldn’t get married. (A dowry is a sum of money the bride’s parents give to the bridegroom on the wedding day. Even now, this is still going on in some countries.) One night, Nicholas put a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house without anyone knowing (this meant that the oldest daughter was then able to be married). The bag landed in a stocking that was drying near the fire. This happened again when the second daughter came along. Finally, the father was so determined to find out who gave him the money that he hid every night by the fire until Nicholas dropped a bag of gold into it. Nicholas begged the man not to tell anyone what he had done because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. But soon, word got out, and if someone got a secret gift, people thought it might have been from Nicholas.

Nicholas was made a Saint because he was kind. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of both children and sailors. One story says that he helped some sailors caught in a bad storm off the coast of Turkey. All around them, a storm was raging. And the men were scared that their ship would sink under the huge waves. They asked for help from St. Nicholas. He was standing on the deck in front of them suddenly. He told the sea to calm down, and it did. The storm stopped, and they were able to sail their ship to port safely.

When Christians were persecuted by Emperor Diocletian, St. Nicholas was kicked out of Myra and put in jail. However, he was freed when the Christian Emperor Constantine took over. In 325, St. Nicholas went to the Council of Nicaea (where things about Christianity were discussed).

When did St. Nicholas die? It was on December 6, but no one is sure. In 1087, some Italian merchant sailors stole his bones from Turkey. The bones are now kept in a church in the Italian port city of Bari that is named after him. On December 6, St. Nicholas’s feast day, the sailors of Bari still take his statue out to sea from the Cathedral so that he can bless the water and keep them safe all year.

Before setting sail for England in 1066, William the Conqueror prayed to St. Nicholas to help him win the battle.

The St. Nicholas Center has a lot of information about St. Nicholas (goes to another site).

Santa Claus came from St. Nicholas.

Santa dressed in different-colored clothes. After the Reformation, stories, and traditions about St. Nicholas fell out of favor in northern Europe in the 1600s.

But someone had to bring gifts to kids at Christmas, so in the UK, especially England, he became known as “St. Christmas,” “Father Christmas,” or “Old Man Christmas,” which was the name of an old character from story plays in the UK and parts of northern Europe during the Middle Ages. He was known as “Père Nol” in France at the time.

In some places, like parts of Austria and Germany, the person who gave the gifts became the “Christkind,” a golden-haired baby with wings representing Jesus as a newborn.

His name in the early United States was “Kris Kringle” (from the Christkind). Later, Dutch settlers in the United States brought the old stories about St. Nicholas with them. Together, Kris Kringle and St. Nicholas became “Sinterklaas,” or “Santa Claus,” as we say today.

December 6 is St. Nicholas Day in many places, especially in Europe. Children in the Netherlands and some other European countries put out clogs or shoes for St. Nicholas to fill with gifts on December 5. They also think that if they put hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will get sweets.

In the 1800s, writers, poets, and artists found the old stories about St. Nicholas and brought them back to life.

In 1821, a poem called “Old Santeclaus with many delights” was published by an unknown person in New York. It was the first time Santa or St. Nicholas was said to be riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. The poem was published with eight pictures in a book called “The Children’s Friend: A New-Present, Years to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve.” These are the first pictures of “Santa Claus,” not St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas.

The friend of children. Number III. A gift for the kid’s ages 5 to 12 for the New Year. Part III (1821), page 1

An illustration from ‘Old Santeclaus with Much Delight’

In 1823, the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas” came out. Later, Dr. Clement Clarke Moore said he wrote it for his children. (Some scholars now think it was written by Henry Livingston, Jr., a distant relative of Dr Moore’s wife.) The poem says that St. Nicholas was “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” and that he had “a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer” with him. This was the first time we learned what the reindeer’s names were.

These are the eight reindeer that the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” talks about:

Dasher Dancer Prancer Vixen Comet Cupid Donner (who has also been called Dunder and Donder)

Rudolph was first brought to our attention in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote a book about him for the Montgomery Ward stores. Then, in 1948, a cartoon was made about Rudolph; in 1949, the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written.

The Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum wrote a book called “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” in 1902. In it, there is a list of 10 reindeer. In pairs, their names rhyme: Flossie and Glossie, Racer and Pacer, Fearless and Peerless, Ready and Steady, Feckless and Speckless. Other reindeer have been named in books, TV shows, movies, and songs. Maybe they’re on the wrong teams!

Santa Claus is shown in a cartoon.

Did you know that Rudolph and the rest of Santa’s reindeer might all be female? During the winter, only the female reindeer keep their antlers. Most males have lost their antlers by Christmas and are saving energy to grow a new pair in the spring.

Over time, Father Christmas in the UK and Santa Claus in the US became more and more alike until they were the same thing.

Some people say the North Pole is where Santa lives. People in Finland say he lives in Lapland, which is in the north of their country.

But everyone agrees that he travels through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. And that he comes into houses at night through the chimney and leaves gifts for children in socks or bags by their beds or in front of the Christmas tree.

A fireplace with stockings hung on it.

Most kids get their gifts on Christmas Eve night or early Christmas morning, but in some places, they get them on December 5, which is St. Nicholas’ Eve.

The tradition of putting a tangerine or satsuma at the bottom of your Christmas stocking may have started when St. Nicholas put the bag of gold into a stocking. People who couldn’t afford gold could get some golden fruit instead. Until the last 50 years, these fruits were pretty rare, so they were still special.

The biggest Christmas stocking was 51 meters and 35 centimeters long and 21 meters and 63 centimeters wide (from the heel to the toe). It was made on January 5, 2011, in Carrara, Tuscany, Italy, by the volunteer emergency services group Pubblica Assistenza Carrara e Sezioni (Italy). Think about how many gifts you could put in there!

Santa Claus and Coca-Cola

Thomas Nast’s 1863 drawing of Santa

January 1863: St. Nicholas in Harper’s Weekly An urban legend about Christmas says that

Coca-Cola designed Santa’s red suit and that they might even “own” Santa.

This is not true at all!

Long before Coke was made, St. Nicholas wore the red robes of a bishop. Before the Victorian era, he wore red, green, blue, and brown fur, but red was always his favourite colour. (In pictures of “St. Christmas,” “Father Christmas,” and “Old Man Christmas,” he often wears a green “open” robe with white trim. This is also where the idea for Charles Dickens’ “The Ghost of Christmas Present” came from.

St. Nicholas in Harper’s Weekly: January 1863

In January 1863, Thomas Nast drew the first picture of St. Nicholas/St. Nick for the magazine Harper’s Weekly. He was dressed in a “Stars and Stripes” outfit! Thomas Nast kept drawing Santa every Christmas for the next 20 years, and his drawings were very popular. He must have been very close with Santa to be able to do this.

This is when Santa’s big belly and his red and white outfit started to take shape. Nast based Santa’s look on historical facts, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and the drawings in “Old Santa Claus with many delights.”

Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus in 1881. St. Nicholas appeared in Harper’s Weekly in January 1881.

On January 1, 1881, Nast’s most famous picture of Santa Claus was published in Harper’s Weekly. It showed Santa with a big red belly, an arm full of toys, and a pipe in his mouth.

From 1900 to 1930, more artists drew Santa in his red and white outfit because this picture of him was so popular.

The first time Santa was used in a Coke ad was in 1931. The famous “Coke Santa” was drawn by artist Haddon Sundblom. He took the idea of Nast’s Santa and made him even bigger and happier. Instead of a pipe, he gave him a glass of Coke, and the famous Coke-drinking Santa was born!

St. Nicholas in Harper’s Weekly: January 1881

Coca-Cola also agrees that Thomas Nast, not them, made the red suit famous.

Since 1931, Coke ads have always had Santa Claus in them. In 1995, the “Holidays are coming” TV ads also showed the “Coca-Cola Christmas truck.” The red truck with lights all over it and the words “Coke Santa” written on the sides has become a well-known part of Christmas history.

Santa Claus in Department Stores

Macy’s Store in New York says that Santa Claus came to their store for the first time in 1861 or 1862. It had only been open for a few years at this point. Since 1924, the end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade has been when Santa comes. After being in the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street, Macy’s Santa became even more well-known.

Some people say that James Wood Parkinson from Philadelphia was the first person to have Santa come to their store. In the 1840s, Santa put on shows for people who came to his candy shop.

James Edgar, who played Santa in his dry goods store in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1890, is the person we know as “one of Santa’s helpers.” James Edgar was born in 1843 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He moved to Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1878. Before he started playing Santa, he put on July 4th picnics for thousands of local kids and dressed up as different characters at those picnics. As soon as Santa showed up for the first time in his store, kids from Boston and even New York came to see him.

By the 1920s, the Department Store Santa was a common sight in the United States and worldwide.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *