Most children know Santa Claus as a big, round, red-cheeked, joyous, old gentleman who delivers Christmas gifts clad in black boots and a red and white suit. But really, who is Santa Claus and what is the History of Santa Claus?

History of Santa Claus

Who Was Saint Nicholas?

To understand the History of Santa Claus we first have to look at Saint Nicholas. The legend of St. Nicholas dates all the way back to the 4th century when a child named Nicholas was born. At that time, nobody knew that he was to become world renowned as Santa Claus, but Nicholas soon showed signs of special abilities. As a grown-up he became bishop of Myra in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey, where, according to legend, he only did good deeds.

One of the deeds later associated with Nicholas (as Santa Claus or gift donor) took place when he saved a family from poverty one night by throwing money through their window. But Nicholas claimed he was capable of much more than that. He could, apparently by the power of God, bring the dead back to life and save sailors from storms. Therefore, Nicholas of Myra was beatified and initially, was mostly honored by the sailors.

At first, Nicholas became a Catholic saint, but during the Reformation hagiography was abandoned by the Protestants. However, it was difficult to just drop St. Nicholas due to his popularity; thus, he was portrayed without a bishop’s miter. Coincidentally, Nicolas had died in December, thus, it was now easy to associate him as Santa Claus with Christmas and gift-giving.

His story was spread by the Dutch sailors berthing in New York. They called St. Nicholas “Sinterklaas”, and through translations to American English, he became the American “Santa Claus”. That’s how St. Nicholas became known under the name Santa Claus in Europe and later on, also in the USA.

Modern Santa Claus

Today, Santa Claus is famous all around the world as the kind, old man who brings Christmas gifts to the children. The world has many Names for Santa Claus: Santa, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle,  Pere Noel, and more. In more modern times,  Santa has been widely used as a commercial eye catcher, in particular after 1930, when Coca Cola used him in their advertisements for the first time. Here he had a big, white beard, black boots, a big red coat, and an infectious laughter – exactly like we know and love him today. His origins include the St. Nicholas story, but many other cultures had their own seasonal Gift-giver, including the British Father Christmas and even the Norse God Odin.

History of Santa Claus, Coke 1947

However, discussions about his origins continue. St. Nicholas came from Asia, but today he is associated with snow and Christmas; therefore, countries like Canada, Finland, Greenland, Norway, and Sweden are fighting for the right to house the old gift giver. You can even visit the ‘North Pole’ in Lapland, Finland.

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Santa Claus Fun Facts

  • Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth.
  • In Poland, Santa gives gifts on the 6th of December.
  • Santa Claus is also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Kris Kringle.
  • In 1866, the artist, Thomas Nast, made a montage entitled, “Santa Claus and His Works” and for the first time established Santa as a maker of toys!
  • It was Coca-Cola’s magazine advertisements, billboards, and point-of-sale store displays that exposed nearly everyone in America to the modern Santa Claus image, but the image of him in a red-and-white suit had been around long before this in Britain and Europe.

Learn more about the History of Santa Claus in our Ultimate Guide to Santa Claus