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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 Santa Claus

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 says 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 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

Gift Giving Customs Linked to Saint Nicholas

Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. He 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 honor of Saint Nicholas, whose modern name Santa Claus, comes from the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’.

Saint Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 AD and on the eve of his death children were bestowed gifts in his honor. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving in many countries in Europe. For example, in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is said to arrive on a steamboat or horse from Spain. On the night of December 5th, Dutch children traditionally put their shoes on the hearth, or the central heating duct, hoping that he will fill them with sweet rewards rather than a reprimand for any poor behavior during the year .

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is said to arrive on a steamboat or horse from Spain. ( georgpfluegl /Adobe Stock)

In other countries, the day of gifts was moved to December 24th and 25th, in the course of the Reformation and its opposition to the veneration of saints. But Saint Nicholas’ concern for children helped him maintain his link to the gift-giving tradition that was moved to Christmas.

Where is Saint Nicholas’ Tomb?

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.

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 have looked like if soft tissues were present on the skull. In 2004, a facial reconstruction anthropologist attempted to create a likeness of the famous saint by applying the latest computer diagnostic techniques to the data gathered in 1957. The results can be viewed here.

Fresco of Saint Nicholas. Source: BigStockPhoto

In 2017, Turkish archaeologists claimed St Nicholas’ remains are not in Bari, but located in the church of Saint Nicholas in Demre. They discovered another sarcophagus dating to the fourth century in the church, which they claim contains the saint.

Other historians suggest that the whole story of the movement of the saint’s bones was just a way to “advertise a new pilgrimage center in the 11th century.” To date, “nothing in the shrine at Bari proves that the bones inside belong to the fourth-century Bishop Nicholas,” according to Professor of History & Religion, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Lisa Bitel.

How Old is the Popular Santa Claus Image?

Several 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"), which appeared in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823.

Many of Santa’s 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 in this poem: 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 popularized 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 honor the life and deeds of Saint Nicholas, an individual beloved and revered as a protector and helper of those in need.

Top Image: There was a real man who inspired the Santa Claus story. Source: Andrey Kiselev /Adobe Stock

By Joanna Gillan

Updated on December 24, 2020.

Comments

Hi All,

To describe Santa Claus the figure I see the subject as The Many Evolution of Jolly St. Nick. Growing up however, as a child I never really liked Santa Claus.

I had been told that somewhere in History there really was an St. Nicholas aka St. Nick figure He I had no problem accepting.

The figure of Santa Claus scared me this one time I think I was 5 or 6 Year's old; I saw one walking down a Hall to a Community Meeting an well I screamed an I hid or rather tried too. So Santa just didn't appeal to me.

As I got older, I began learning a little more through the Night Before Christmas poem and The Polar Express I admit it was The Book The Polar Express illustrations that drew me in learning of Santa Claus.

I think what stuck out to me was that Santa Claus at one time was described as an Elf, he was decisively taller than the Elves that ran around the Toy Shop building gifts.

Hearing of the Elf angle that I read up on I found out that some Elves were supposedly good and other Elves, did not have the best interests at heart towards people.

I also discovered that it was believed Elves had certain abilities; probably why Santa Claus using magic, is so appealing to children and the young at heart. You know I often, wondered if they got Elves confused with Gnomes.

An then Horror comedy movie Krampus was introduced to Movie theaters and until that time I'd never heard of any Krampus beforehand. So it made me think what if Krampus an Elf was the true story of Santa Claus?

Perhaps the original story was edited for understandable purposes because the real one was to horrifying to think of at all and that would make Krampus an Evil Elf, then somewhere down the line the story was changed to Jolly St. Nick, a song comes along like "Up on the Housetop" like a warning of who was coming to one's house and not in a good way.

For Example, in 1347, we know the Black Death arrives by boat on Sicily, Italy and from there Hell was definitely Earth at that Time Period. Out of The Black Death a few ballads, Nursery Rhymes, and Poems were written to commemorate the Event.

One such Nursery Rhymes children do them to this day...

"Ring-a-round the Rosey,
pocket-full-of-toesies;
ashes, ashes we all fall down"

After, a Special on PBS I heard the original Nursery Rhyme, it was interchanged to the one children say today. It's important to know the original came from children to begin with, and Feel free to laugh but, I've forgotten how it went, I do know
that it's purpose told the story of The Black Death.

The children described The Diseased Body of the unfortunate, victim stricken by the Virus.

Like that of the Nursery Rhyme Ring-a-round the Rosey; this is what I think happened with the Oral Story of Krampus who becomes Santa Claus and has an Evil-double who does the opposite of Santa Claus.

Thus what we're left with is the image of Santa Claus we know today.

In the case of my mother when she grew up the family didn't do Christmas because they were Seventh Day Adventist; my maternal grandfather on the other hand did observe the practice I think done in The Netherlands; or possibly Holland, It involved a pair of Cobbler Shoes or Wooden Shoes?

My Mom always cried when reminiscence those gift giving days.

This is what I think of when considering The Origins of Santa Claus.

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.

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