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Santa Claus—also known as Saint Nicholas or Kris Kringle—has a long history steeped in Christmas tradition worldwide. He is assumed as a Jolly old man, dressed in red, who brings presents to good children on Christmas Eve. But, his real story stretches back to the 3rd century, when the progenitor of modern American Santa Claus was born in the Mediterranean during the Roman Empire.
His legend evolved with time, and once a saint finally assumed his now-familiar avatar. Learn who was the real Santa Claus and his journey to American Christmas tradition.
The Real Santa Claus
The legend of Santa Claus has its roots back hundreds of years ago to a priest named St. Nicholas. Nicholas was born around 260 A.D near the town of Myra on the southwest coast of Modern Turkey. He was born in a Christian family at that time when Christianity was illegal under the Roman Empire. As he studied to be a priest, he was imprisoned for his religious belief then. However, after Emperor Constantine came to the throne and legalized Christianity, he was elected as Bishop of Myra.
There are several legends revolving around St. Nicholas because of his righteousness and kindness. According to the legends, he gave away all his inheritance and traveled around the countryside to help the poor and sick. One of the best-known St. Nicholas legends is when he saved three poor sisters from prostitution by providing them with dowry so that they could be married. Eventually, St. Nicholas’ popularity spread, and he became famed as the protector of children and sailors.
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On December 6, his death anniversary is celebrated as his Feast day and regarded as the lucky day to make big purchases and get married. By the Renaissance, he was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after Protestant Reformation, he maintained his positive reputation.
Santa Claus Around the World
Santa Claus is known by several names depending on the part of the world you belong to. The English call him Father Christmas, while the French know him as Pere Noel. And, Kris Kringle, the version of Christkind or Christ Child, is believed to leave treats to well-behaved Swiss and German children.
In the Netherlands, Santa arrives in town on a steamboat or horse from Spain. The Dutch children put their shoes on the hearth on the night of December 5, with the hope that he will fill them with rewards instead of reprimand for poor behavior. And, they call him Sinterklass, short for Saint Nicholas, which came into America as Santa Claus.
If historically perceived, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are the same person. The difference is, Santa Claus, the jolly figure flies on a sleigh from the North Pole; whereas, Saint Nicholas originally came from the balmy Mediterranean coast.
Santa Claus Comes to New York
St. Nicholas made his journey to American culture towards the end of the 18th century, with a New York newspaper report about a group of Dutch families gathered to honor the saint’s death anniversary. The name Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch alias Sinter Klass, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas.
In 1804, a member of the New York Historical Society, namely John Pintard, provided woodcuts of St. Nicholas during the society’s annual meeting. The engraving illustrated now-familiar Santa images, including stockings filled with toys and fruit, hung over a fireplace. Again in 1809, the Sinter Klass stories popularized by Washington Irving, when he described St. Nicholas, a patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. Since then, his popularity grew, Santa Claus was described as a jolly old man with a red waistcoat and yellow stockings filled with rewards.
In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army required funds to pay for the Christmas meals they provided to the needy families. Hence, they began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sent them to New York streets to collect donations. Those Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells on the streets of American cities ever since.
Santa Claus and American Christmas Tradition
The legend of Santa Claus is quite interesting in the United States. According to the legend, Santa Claus flies from his home on Christmas Eve to deliver toys to children. His magic sleigh is led by his reindeer—Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and the most famous Rudolph. Santa enters each home through a chimney and leaves presents in empty socks for the well behaved children. That is why people decorate empty stockings (which were once empty socks), especially for the occasion. And the stockings can be filled with candy canes or small toys.
Santa Claus and his wife, Mrs. Claus, live in the North Pole. Children write letters to him and track his progress around the world on Christmas Eve. Children often leave milk and cookies for Santa and carrots for his reindeers on Christmas Eve. Santa Claus keeps a “nice list” and a “naughty list” to determine who deserves a present on Christmas morning. Parents invoke the list to ensure their children are on their best behavior.