From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus, this is the story behind the iconic figure that has come to symbolise Christmas celebrations worldwide.
Christmas is a season of love, warmth and generosity. It never fails to bring hope and cheer not just to those celebrating it, but also to the society and world at large. We celebrate it with our loved ones, giving them presents while feasting on good food. Even though the holiday began from sacred religious origins, it has become a truly global cultural phenomenon. Meanwhile, from all the Christmas traditions and symbolism, it’s safe to say that no other element has come to characterise all this more than the legendary and lovable Santa Claus.
How Santa Claus came to represent Christmas is a fascinating story that stretches across millennia, continents and cultures.
It all began in the 4th century, with a priest by the name of Nicholas in a place called Myra (in present day Turkey). Rich from his inheritance after losing his parents when he was young, he loved helping the poor and the sick via secret gifts. One of his most famous stories was from before he became a saint, and is connected to the custom of hanging up stockings for presents!
There was a poor father to three daughters. He was so poor that his daughters couldn’t get married because he couldn’t afford dowries. So, one night Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the poor man’s chimney, which fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry! Nicholas repeated this three times and the man caught him on the third time. News eventually got out, so when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas. As for the man and his daughters, the gold Nicholas gave helped them live better lives, and since then he was recognised as patron saint of children.
The day of feast for St Nicholas is celebrated on 6 December, the anniversary of his death. Until today, sailors in the north Italian city of Bari - where Nicholas's bones have been moved following the arrival of Muslims in Turkey - would carry his statue out to sea to bless the waters for safe voyages. By the Renaissance period, St Nicholas had become the most popular saint in Europe.
However, the Protestant reformation in the 16th century discouraged the veneration of saints. Stories and traditions about St Nicholas became unpopular, but Christmas presents were still given to children. At the same time, countries in Europe already had their legends and versions of Christmas gift-bringers - some even pre-dating Christianity. Over time, these legendary figures would merge with the story of St Nicholas and become known with different names in different countries. There is Father Christmas in England, Pere Noel in France, Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and its colonies, and eventually St a Claus in America, as Dutch settlers brought their festivities with them to New York - which was known as New Amsterdam in the 17th century - according to an article that appeared in The New York Gazetteer in the 1770s.
In older depictions, St Nicholas would be portrayed wearing either a green coat or a traditional bishop’s costume with the red bishop’s hat. The popular image of Santa Claus today can be attributed to the poem A Visit From St Nicholas, which was later published as illustrated books, a drawing by cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly magazine, and - believe it or not, to the popular soda brand Coca-Cola! Cartoonist Thomas Nast started drawing Santa for Harper’s Weekly in 1863. Nast drew Santa every Christmas over the next 20 years. In January 1881, the magazine published his most famous image of Santa - a big red belly, an arm full of toys and smoking a pipe. The drawing was actually a propaganda piece by Nast, intended to pressure the government into raising military wages as the cartoonist knew how hard men in the army worked. This image was then further popularised by illustrator Haddon Sundblum in a 1931 advertisement for Coca-Cola, featuring a portly white-bearded gentleman in a red suit with a black belt and white fur trim, black boots, and a soft red cap. Thus, from a saint to Dutch settlers, a poem, a cartoon and a soft drink advertisement, the image of the Santa Claus that we all know was born and has endured to this day.