I’ve seen television programming making fun of the fact that Jesus and Santa are so wrapped up with each other in a lot of children’s minds that they can’t tell the difference. The history of the figure who eventually came to be known as Santa Claus actually explains a lot of this confusion. Most people know that Santa Claus is based on the real-life Saint Nicholas from 3rd century Scandinavia (modern day Turkey). But that seems to be the bulk of what people know about him.
When we take a look at the man’s history and the reason for his sainthood we see quite a lot of similarities with Jesus. Both gave up worldly materials and lifestyles to pursue a more spiritual calling. Both traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. Both have religious observations associated with them in December (Jesus for his birth, St. Nicholas for his death). And both have been associated, in various ways, with the spirit of giving.
So it’s no surprise that he remained one of the most popular saints throughout the centuries that followed. And because of this, many other cultures around the world adopted their own version of him who, while different in appearance or traits all shared the benevolent gift-giving activities of the original Saint. But in American culture the transition from poor, wandering do-gooder to jolly fat man has much more to do with marketing than religious storytelling.
The traditions associated with St. Nicholas spread to the new world when Dutch settlers came over to America. It is assumed that the idea of St. Nicholas coming and giving gifts or filling stockings probably spread through verbal tradition in Dutch culture long before those stories started being re-told in America. One of the traditions passed down through early Dutch settlers is the name: Santa Claus derives from the Dutch Sinter Klaas, a shortened version of the Dutch translation of St. Nicholas. Other things passed down were the idea of the man as a jolly one who enjoyed merriment and gift-giving.
The single largest contributor to the modern day Santa Claus seems to be the well known poem “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” which give us the rotund physique, flying sleigh led by reindeer and magical being capable of filling stockings for all the little girls and boys of the world. That Santa, while possessing the white beard and rosy face was dressed solely in fur and not the familiar red suit we now associate with him.
The complete image, as well as the North Pole workshop filled with busy elves and his loving wife Mrs. Claus actually comes from a cartoonist Thomas Nast who, in Harper’s Weekly in 1881 drew the full scene that we now associate with Santa Claus. Soon the Salvation Army adopted the image in order to raise money for the free Christmas meals they provided and Santa suit wearing men started standing on street corners ringing bells to collect donations, followed quickly by shop owners eager to attract holiday shoppers. Within a few decades the image and tales associated with it had cemented their legacy into the American psyche.