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The Ancient Origins of Santa Claus

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Every year millions of children around the world anxiously wait for the arrival of Santa Claus. Parents tell stories of the man with the white beard, red coat and polished boots who travels the world with his reindeer bearing gifts for all those who were well-behaved.  Perhaps one day, parents will also tell the story of the real Santa Claus – a man who dedicated his life to charity and gift-giving.

The real story of Santa Claus begins with Saint Nicholas (270 – 343 AD), who was born in the village of Patara, an area which was once Greek but is now part of Turkey. He was born to wealthy parents, who died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young.  Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.  One account of Nicholas tells that he presented three impoverished daughters with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. On three different occasions, the bags of gold providing the dowries had appeared in their home.  They had been tossed through an open window and are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.

Portrait of Saint Nicholas. Source: BigStockPhoto

Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man and became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need and his love for children. Thus began the tradition of gift-giving in honour of Saint Nicholas, whose modern name Santa Claus, comes from the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’.

Saint Nicholas died on 6 th December, 343 AD and so on the eve of his death, children were bestowed gifts in his honour.  December 6 th is still the main day for gift giving in many countries in Europe.  In other countries, the day of gifts was moved in the course of the Reformation and its opposition to the veneration of saints in many countries on the 24 th and 25 th December. 

Nicholas' tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. So in 1087, most of his bones were moved to Bari in Italy, where they remain to this day.  A basilica was constructed the same year to store his remains and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout.

Fresco of Saint Nicholas. Source: BigStockPhoto

An anatomy professor from the University of Bari, who catalogued, measured, and photographed the saint's remains in 1957 tried to sketch what Nicholas would look like if soft tissues were present on the skull, and in 2004, a facial anthropologist attempted to create a reconstruction by applying the latest computer diagnostic techniques to the data gathered in 1957. The results can be viewed here.

Many of the modern ideas of Santa Claus have been attributed to the poem by Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas") in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823

Many of his modern attributes are established in this poem, such as riding in a sleigh that lands on the roof, entering through the chimney, and having a bag full of toys. St. Nicholas is described as being "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf" with "a little round belly", that "shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly", in spite of which the "miniature sleigh" and "tiny reindeer" still indicate that he is physically diminutive. The reindeer were also named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).

Since then, the image of Santa Claus has been popularised through television, movies and children’s story books. While some dislike the idea of gift-giving at Christmas, believing that the lavish celebrations are not in line with their faith, or that Santa has become a symbol of materialism, others believe that it continues to honour the life and deeds of Nicholas, an individual beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.

By April Holloway

Comments

In The Netherlands Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 5th. Not on the 6th. From the official arrival of Sinterklaas from Spain (televised) till December 5th. children put their shoes besides the chimney with a carrot for the horse, or a bit of straw, and got sweets or small presents in their shoes in exchange. The important presents are given to children on December 5th. Often Sinterklaas and his helpers, Zwarte Pieten, visit the childrens' homes. Sinterklaas is also an important educational tool as he has a big book describing the every child's good and bad behaviour during the past year. You had behaved badly, a Zwarte Piet would dole out birching and could even put the child into his sack to be taken away to Spain.
Sinterklaas has nothing to do with Christmas or Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a distorted and commercial invention of the US. Ah, that also goes for Halloween.

St. Nicholas or Dutch: "Sinterklaas" was the patron saint of Amsterdam already for centuries. Immigrants from Holland in the 17th century took Sinterklaas with them to New Amsterdam in the new world. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Amsterdam That thriving town later - when the Britts took over - was renamed New York. Sinterklaas already in the 17th century had become the patron saint of New Amsterdam as well.

http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus

"... Sinter Klaas Comes to New York

St. Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773, and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.

The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. The background of the engraving contains now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. ..."

N.B.: "... The scholarly conclusion has largely been that the settlement of New Amsterdam is much more like current New York than previously thought. Cultural diversity and a mind-set that resembles the American Dream were already present in the first few years of this colony. Writers like Russell Shorto argue that the large influence of New Amsterdam on the American psyche has largely been overlooked in the classic telling of American beginnings, because of animosity between the English victors and the conquered Dutch. ..." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Amsterdam

rbflooringinstall's picture

I would like to know what countries are stilling giving gifts on Dec. 6. America needs to ditch the annoying BS that we've applie to christmas and go back to our roots. Start giving gifts on the Dec. 6 and recognize the solstice!

Peace and Love,

Ricky.

You really dropped dropped the ball on this one. The legend only begins with that saint nonsense once Christians got a hold of it.

The origin of Christmas is pagan, I agree. And ONE OF santa's types may be Odin/Wotan - in gray or in red and white, after Coca-Cola's influence. What I however don't understand is your complaint about lack of research, in the context of paganism or, more generally, religion. It is the nature of any religion that purely rational research doesn't reveal the difference between historical incidents, faith, belief, and superstition (if any). Or what evidence do you want to provide through simple research that, just for example, that the Nativity Story or the Genesis are not so much imagination as other creation myths of which there are so many around the world? The only we can conclusively say in such a rational way is that Jesus most likely had neither blue eyes nor blond hair (unless he is also a descendant of Alexander the Great as the Kalasha in Pakistan are, according to legend).

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