Santa Claus is generally depicted as a jolly, plump man with a white beard, dressed in a red and white suit, riding a sleigh full of toys drawn through the air by eight reindeer. Santa, also called Saint Nicholas and Saint Nick, is said to visit our homes on Christmas Eve.
He enters a house through the chimney and leaves presents under the Christmas tree and in stockings for all good children.
St Nick was famous throughout the early Christian world for his good deeds and his generosity to the poor. His role as the traditional giver of gifts spread throughout the whole of Europe making him a legend in his own right. The saint was called Sankt Nikolaus in Germany and Sanct Herr Nicholaas or Sinter Klaas in Holland. In these countries Nicholas was sometimes said to ride through the sky on a horse. He was depicted wearing a bishop’s robes and was said to be accompanied at times by Black Peter, an elf whose job was to whip the naughty children.
Santa in the Middle Ages
Nicholas is the patron saint of children, scholars, sailors, and merchants and in the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) thieves regarded him as their patron saint as well. Legend tells of his surreptitious gifts to the three daughters of a poor man, who, unable to give them dowries, was about to abandon them to prostitution. From this tale has grown the custom of secret gifts on the Eve of Saint Nicholas.
The feast day of Nicholas was traditionally observed on December 6. After the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, German Protestants encouraged veneration of the Christkindl (Christ child) as a gift giver on his own feast day, December 25.
When the Nicholas tradition prevailed, it became attached to Christmas itself. As the saint’s life is so unreliably documented, Pope Paul VI ordered the feast of Saint Nicholas dropped from the official Roman Catholic calendar in 1969. The term Christkindl evolved into Kriss Kringle, another nickname for Santa Claus. Various other European Christmas gift givers include Père Noël in France, Julenisse in Scandinavia, and Father Christmas in England.
17th Century Santa
The American version of Santa Claus was brought by Dutch settlers to New York in the 17th century. In North America he eventually developed into a jolly, plump, older gentleman who had neither the religious attributes of Saint Nicholas nor the strict disciplinarian character of Black Peter.
19th Century Santa
Santa’s transformation began in 1823, when a New York newspaper published the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which Clement Clark Moore had written to amuse his daughter. The poem introduced many Americans to the story of a kindly saint who flew over housetops in a reindeer–drawn sleigh. Portraits and drawings of Santa Claus by American illustrator Thomas Nast further strengthened the legend during the second half of the 19th century. Living at the North Pole and assisted by elves, the modern Santa produced and delivered toys to all good children.
By the late 19th century he had become such a prominent figure of American folklore that in 1897, when Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun newspaper asking if Santa were real, she received a direct answer: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
The fully detailed modern image of Santa Claus plays a part in Christmas celebrations around the world. People are reminded of Santa Claus through advertising, greeting cards, decorations, and the annual appearance of Santa’s in department stores and shopping malls.
Children write letters to Santa Claus and set out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve as a snack for Santa. A lot of children in the UK also leave carrots for the reindeer.