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  • Sam Decker

The Community and Events that Created Santa Claus

[I thought this repost from last December might be interesting to share with your friends as we enter the Christmas season…]

Christmas is a multi-billion dollar consumer-spending "tradition". It’s the ultimate excuse to buy. Unfortunately, the originally intended meaning of Christmas gets lost in this annual shopping frenzy. Nonetheless, it is a marketing marvel to see how the Santa Claus "Brand" developed.

Here is the story of players and events that solidified Santa Claus and Christmas traditions. (Adapted with permission from Lee Krystek, curator at

1. The original St. Nicholas lived in southwestern Turkey in the 4th century. He was credited with doing miracles for children. After he died, he was given his own ‘feast day’ on December 6th. 2. About the same time, Pope Julius I decided to establish a date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The actual date of His birth was unknown, but he hoped assigning this date would help ‘Christianize’ pagan festivals occurring at the same time. 3. Eventually, Saint Nicholas’s feast day was moved to December 25th, and his connection with Christmas was established. 4. A tradition developed that he would supposedly visit homes on Christmas Eve and children would place nuts, apples, sweets and other items around the house to welcome him. 5. As the Reformation took a hold of much of Europe, however, the popularity of St. Nicholas dropped in most Protestant countries, with the exception of Holland where he was referred to as "Sinter Klaas." 6. After this tradition came to the United States, "Sinter Klass" would eventually be corrupted to "Santa Claus." 7. It’s been said that Dutch settlers brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas to the North American city of New Amsterdam (which the British would later rename "New York"). 8. However, research shows there’s little evidence that Nicholas played much of a part in these settlers celebrations. It seems more likely that Saint Nicholas became an American tradition during a wave of interest in Dutch customs following the Revolutionary War. 9. Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame) included him in a comic book, History of New York City written in 1809. 10. John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, took an especially keen interest in the legend and the Society hosted its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner in 1810. 11. Artist Alexander Anderson was commissioned to draw an image of the Saint for the dinner. He was still shown as a religious figure, but now he was also clearly depositing gifts in children’s stockings which were hung by the fireplace to dry. 12. Perhaps nothing has fixed the image of Santa Claus so firmly in the American mind as a poem entitled A Visit from St. Nicholas written by Clement Moore in 1822. Moore, a professor of biblical languages at New York’s Episcopal Theological Seminary, drew upon Pintard’s belief of the early New Amsterdam traditions and added some elements from German and Norse legends. These stories held that a happy little elf-like man presided over midwinter pagan festivals. In the poem, Moore depicts the Saint as a tiny man with a sleigh drawn by eight miniature reindeer. They fly him from house to house and at each residence he comes down the chimney to fill the stockings hung by the fireplace with gifts. 13. Moore had written the poem for the enjoyment of his own family, but in 1823 it was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel. It became very popular and has been reprinted countless times under the more familiar title, The Night Before Christmas. 14. Where did Moore get the reindeer? The Saami people of northern Scandinavia and Finland often used reindeer to pull their sledges around and this found its way into the poem. Reindeer, which are much sturdier animals than North American deer, are well adapted to cold climates with their heavy fur coats and broad, flat hooves for walking on snow.

15. As time went by, more and more was added to the Santa Claus legend. Thomas Nast, a 19th century cartoonist, did a series of drawings for Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s vision of Santa had him living at the North Pole. Nast also gave him a workshop for building toys and a large book filled with the names of children who had been naughty or nice. 16. The 19th century Santa was often shown wearing outfits of different colors: purple, green and blue in addition to red. This slowly faded out so that by the beginning of the 20th century the standard image of Santa Claus was a man in a red suit trimmed with white. The Coca-Cola Company has often been cited for cementing the image of Santa with the colors red and white through a series of popular advertisements in the 1940’s depicting Saint Nick enjoying their product (Cola-Cola’s company colors are red and white). The truth is that by the time the ads came out, Santa (in the public’s mind) was already wearing only his modern colors.


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