Santa Claus—Behind the Legend

[December 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage]

Merry Old Santa Claus. illustration by Thomas-Nast

AT THIS TIME OF THE YEAR, you’re sure to hear some excited child utter the name of Santa Claus. If you’re like most people, the thought of that jolly, red-garbed and white-bearded old gent brings back fond memories as it has for generations of children.

His appearance has changed over the decades—thanks in part to men like Clement Clark Moore. In 1822, Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a fanciful poem for his three daughters titled, An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas (later renamed The Night Before Christmas). In Moore’s poem, St. Nicholas is described as “a right jolly old elf” all dressed up in fur, with rosy cheeks, a round belly, and white beard.

Sixty years later, political cartoonist Thomas Nast of Harpers Weekly, used Moore’s description to create the Santa Claus we recognize today. The sleigh and the reindeer came from Moore’s poem; Rudolph (the red-nosed reindeer) came from a song.

The Americanized version of Santa Claus only vaguely resembles the man thought to be the original St. Nick. Born in Lycia (now present-day Turkey) to wealthy parents, Nicholas strove to follow Christian teachings by using his inheritance to secretly help the less fortunate, especially children, and later became a Christian bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra. Although he did his kind deeds in secret, stories traveled from village to village and his popularity grew.

The most famous legend surrounding St. Nicholas is the story of three sisters whose impoverished father was about the sell them into prostitution. Upon hearing the news, St. Nicholas came by dark of night and dropped three bags of gold coins through their window, thus providing the girls with a dowry so they could marry. Since many of his charitable deeds involved helping children, St Nick soon became known as the patron saint of children. He also became known as a protector of sailors when it was said that his prayers during a storm at sea saved them all from certain death.

“Sinterklaas,” the Dutch version of Santa Claus brought to America in late 1700s.

Over time, stories of his kindness and generosity grew and spread across Europe. Countries like Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have their own versions of St. Nicholas, also known by the names of  Christkindl or Kris Kringle. In Scandinavia, an elf named Jultomten delivers gifts in a goat-drawn sleigh. Good English children receive gifts from Father Christmas, who is called Pere Noel in France. For centuries, European countries have celebrated St. Nicholas’ birthday, December 6th.

The New World had no such legend until the Dutch brought their version, Sinterklaas, to America in the 1700s. Sinterklass rides a white horse, and he travels with his helpers, called Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters). One of these helpers carries a big book with the names of all Dutch children and whether they’ve been naughty or nice. Sound familiar?

Today, we take the kids and grandkids to visit Santa Claus so they can give him a list of all the expensive toys they think they must have and claim they’ll die if they don’t get. We spend money we don’t have for things we don’t need and often overlook the true reason behind Christmas. We set aside the birth of Christ for a commercialized, gift-swapping time of over-indulgence, instead of exemplifying the spirit of Christmas like St. Nicholas did throughout his life. He understood the love and sacrifice behind the greatest gift the world was ever given.

No matter the name, the common theme that runs through each of these legends is one of good-will, charity, kindness, and compassion. This Christmas let’s share the legacy of St. Nicholas by remembering the first gift of Christmas, the birth of our savior and carry His words into the new year, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Mark 12:31



Old St Nicholas