St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: The birth of an icon

The 21st-century American version of Santa Claus is what so many people are familiar with today, but Santa has come a long way, inspired by St. Nicholas. And no, Coca-Cola had little to do with it. (Mike Mozart/Flickr Commons/CC BY 2.0)

(MEDIA GENERAL) — The character of Santa Claus has come a long way over the years. We know him today as a jolly, magical elf who brings goodies and toys for good girls and boys across the world. But that’s only the 21st-century version of Santa here in the U.S.

Here’s how the legend of St. Nicholas came to become the icon we know today.

The lore of St. Nicholas

A Russian Orthodox statue of St. Nicholas, near a church in Demre, Turkey. (Simm/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)
A Russian Orthodox statue of St. Nicholas, near a church in Demre, Turkey. (Simm/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Like Santa Claus, St. Nicholas himself is a bit of a mythical figure. Many of the stories we know about him may be lore. There are shockingly few historical documents to attest to much of St. Nicholas’ tenure as the Bishop of Myra. Almost everything we know about St. Nicholas lives on in legend.

St. Nicholas reportedly was born around 280 A.D. in the city of Patara, near Myra in what is now modern-day Turkey. As the legend goes, St. Nicholas was born into a very wealthy family. His parents died when he was young and he inherited a vast amount of wealth, which he gave away to those in need. He was lauded for his charity and selflessness and was named the Bishop of Myra.

Two stories stand out in the lore of St. Nicholas. One is the tale of St. Nicholas saving three sisters from being sold into slavery for prostitution by providing them with a dowry so they instead could be married. The other is a bit more gruesome. St. Nicholas entered a nearby inn where the innkeeper had killed three young boys, dismembered their bodies and pickled them in a tub of brine. According to legend, St. Nicholas instinctively discovered the crime and resurrected the boys. This act helped lead to his sainthood and his image as a protector of children.

The legend of St. Nicholas lived on in Europe long after his death. Many European cultures celebrated St. Nicholas with a feast on the anniversary of his death, December 6.

St. Nicholas comes to America

St. Nicholas, right, and his companion Krampus participate in a parade in this Nov. 24, 2001 file photo, in St. Johann in the Austrian province of Tyrol. (AP file)
St. Nicholas, right, and his companion Krampus participate in a parade in this Nov. 24, 2001 file photo, in St. Johann in the Austrian province of Tyrol. (AP file)

St. Nicholas first made his way west through Dutch culture. Sinterklaas, a shortened version of the Dutch Sint Nikolaas, was honored by Dutch families that crossed the Atlantic and settled in New York. Newspaper reports as early as 1773 detail the Dutch custom of celebrating the saint. In the early 19th century, the tradition took root in the United States – Santa Claus would leave toys and fruits for children who hung stockings atop their mantle, but the image and tradition of Santa still varied by culture and household.

Enter Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast. In 1809, Irving wrote of a pipe-smoking St. Nicholas in his popular book “Knickerbocker’s History of New York,” which detailed Santa delivering presents to good children. Moore was an Episcopal minister, professor and writer from New York. In 1822, he penned a poem titled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” which has since been transformed to “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Moore’s poem is credited with establishing a uniform image of St. Nicholas as a “jolly old elf” and the Santa Claus we know today.

In 1881, long after Moore’s death, political cartoonist Thomas Nast used Moore’s poem as inspiration to draw Santa as the icon we picture today. Nast published illustrations of Santa in Harper’s Weekly, depicting Santa Claus as a portly, caucasian man with rosy cheeks and a full, white beard. He also gave Santa a red suit with white trim, his North Pole workshop, elves and his wife – Mrs. Claus.

The Coca-Cola myth

History dispels a common myth: No, The Coca-Cola Company did not create the modern image of Santa Claus. St. Nick first appeared in Coca-Cola advertisements in 1931. The illustrations by Haddon Sundblom borrowed prominently from its inspirations – Irving, Moore, Nast and countless illustrations published earlier.

A jolly, rotund Santa Claus not only appeared in several Nast illustrations but was imitated by other artists, as well. J.C Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell famously painted several images of Santa Claus for the Saturday Evening Post’s annual Christmas editions, some of which can be viewed here, including several that pre-date the Coca-Cola ads.

Santa around the world

Saint Nicholas, left, and "Zwarte Piet" of Black Pete greeted children when arriving in the historic city of Gouda, Netherlands, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. Black Petes, the traditional black-faced sidekicks of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, walked side-by-side with yellow-colored "Cheese Petes" and "cookie Petes," a nod to the city's most famous products, but also a concession to critics of the traditional Black Petes. Ever more, the children's fairy tale that has delighted kids for generations is being framed as a very politicized debate in the Netherlands, where discussion about the place in society of immigrants has simmered for years. (AP file)
Sinterklaas, left, and “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) greeted children when arriving in the historic city of Gouda, Netherlands, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. (AP file)

The Santa legend has taken on different traditions in other parts of the world.

The Dutch still celebrate the coming of Sinterklaas, who annually travels to The Netherlands from his home in Madrid, Spain, on Dec. 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day. Sinterklass and his servants bring presents and treats for children. The tradition of Sinterklaas’ servants, known as Zwarte Piet, is controversial today. Zwarte Piet, translated to English as Black Peter, and has participants dress in blackface to play the character, which gets criticism for promoting negative stereotypes. Traditionalists believe Black Peter is an innocent part of the tradition and argue he is only black because he is covered in soot from climbing down chimneys.

In Sweden, an elf named Jultomten delivers gifts to households in a sleigh drawn by goats in exchange for treats. Pere Noel fills stockings for French children on Christmas, while La Befana, a witch who rides her broomstick, delivers toys to stockings in Italy. The English celebrate with Father Christmas, an amalgam of Santa Claus and a legendary pagan figure from British winter festivals.

In Russia, a timeless woman named Babouschka is still making amends for a trick she played on the wise men from the nativity story. Russian lore says Babouschka purposely gave the wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem so they couldn’t visit baby Jesus. Every year on Jan. 5, Baboushka leaves gifts at the bedside of all Russian children, hoping one of them is baby Jesus so she will be forgiven.

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