The History of St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Santa Claus

Santa Claus is one of the most instantly recognizable icons in all of human history, from his sack full of toys to his red-and-white suit. Children from countries all over the world perk up at the mere mention of his name. But have you ever wondered how Santa Claus came to be in the first place?

The Man Behind Santa Claus

The inspiration for Santa Claus was a wealthy fourth-century bishop named St. Nicholas. He resided in Myra, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and he inherited his fortune from his parents, who passed away when he was still very young. Known for his generosity, he assisted the less fortunate and bestowed secret gifts upon those in need, or so it is said. The truth about St. Nicholas remains largely unknown, but several legends persist that detail the extraordinary levels of kindness he displayed.

One of the most famous tales about St. Nicholas details how the tradition of hanging stockings for presents began. The story features a poor man with three daughters. The daughters were unable to marry, since their father lacked the money necessary for a dowry. To help the man and his daughters, St. Nicholas tossed a bag of gold down their chimney, which landed in a stocking hanging by the fire. This act allowed the eldest daughter to wed, and the benevolent gesture was then repeated for the other daughters. The father, curious about the benefactor, eventually caught Nicholas in the act. Although Nicholas implored him to keep it a secret, word spread, and soon, everyone started to believe that any secret gift they received was from St. Nicholas.

These acts of compassion and kindness eventually contributed to sainthood for St. Nicholas. He became the patron saint of children as well as sailors. The connection to sailors came from a story in which he rescued terrified sailors caught in a violent storm near the Turkish coast. Appearing before them, he commanded the sea to calm, then led the ship into port.

Despite tales of his generous nature, life was not always easy for St. Nicholas. During the Christian persecution by Emperor Diocletian, St. Nicholas faced exile and imprisonment in Myra. However, he was later released under the rule of Emperor Constantine, a Christian.

The exact date of St. Nicholas's death remains uncertain, with possible dates ranging from 343 to 352. In 1087, Italian merchants stole his remains from Turkey and brought them to the Church of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy. To this day, on his feast day, sailors in Bari carry a statue of him from the cathedral to bless the waters and ensure safe travels throughout the year.

How St. Nicholas Turned Into Santa Claus

Following the Reformation in the 1500s, Protestant Christians moved away from the veneration of saints, including St. Nicholas. However, gift-giving was still a valued tradition, and parents wanted to keep the idea of a generous benefactor bestowing presents to well-behaved children. In the U.K., this benefactor became "Father Christmas," "Old Man Christmas," or "St. Christmas." In France, it was "Père Nöel," French for "Father Christmas." But other countries around the world adopted completely new images for the mythical figure. For instance, the name chosen in Austria and Germany was "Christkindl," and the figure was depicted as a winged baby with golden hair who was meant to be reminiscent of Jesus.

It wasn't until the formation of the United States that the name "Santa Claus" would come into use. Some early Americans took the term "Christkindl" and turned it into "Kris Kringle." Other Americans of northern European descent brought with them stories of old St. Nicholas, or "Sinterklass," as he was known. The melding of these groups and their names for this Christmas figure would eventually lead to the creation of Santa Claus as he's known today.

Santa Claus made his first appearance during the 1800s, when St. Nicholas regained popularity thanks to the efforts of writers and artists who rediscovered old stories about him. In 1821, he appeared in a poem called "Old Santeclaus With Much Delight," which introduced the concept of Santa Claus riding in a sleigh that was pulled by a reindeer. This marked the first appearance of Santa Claus distinct from St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas. In 1823, Santa Claus made another appearance in the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore. The poem described St. Nicholas as a jolly old elf with a little sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. The poem also named his reindeer for the very first time.

The original eight reindeer mentioned in the poem were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder (also called Dunder or Donner), and Blitzen (also called Blixem, Blixen, or Blicksem). Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer wasn't introduced until 1939, when Robert L. May wrote a book featuring the character to be published by the Montgomery Ward department store chain. Though a later addition, Rudolph went on to become arguably the most famous of Santa's reindeer, getting a cartoon version of his story in 1948, his own song in 1949, and a stop-motion animated special in 1964.

Today, the UK's Father Christmas and Santa Claus are considered the same. Some believe that Santa resides at the North Pole, while in Finland, it is said that he lives in Lapland. But no matter where he lives, Santa is known to travel through the night sky in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. He enters houses through the chimney and leaves presents in stockings, by the Christmas tree, or near the fireplace.

Santa Claus and Coca-Cola

Santa Claus has long been featured in Coca-Cola advertisements during the holiday season. These ads have become so popular, in fact, that they led to the creation of a Christmas urban legend: Some believe that Coca-Cola designed Santa and his red suit to match the company's colors, meaning that Coca-Cola would own the rights to Santa. It's an entertaining story but one that is verifiably false.

Santa Claus was associated with a red suit long before the name "Santa Claus" even came about. That attire comes from the red bishop robes that were worn by St. Nicholas. While St. Nicholas didn't wear red exclusively, it was largely considered his favorite choice.

The rest of Santa Claus's image was developed over time and established long before the association with Coca-Cola. In January 1863, the first illustration of St. Nicholas by Thomas Nast was published in Harper's Weekly, which showed him wearing a patriotic stars-and-stripes outfit amid the Civil War. This drawing was far from Nast's last, however, as he put out new illustrations of Santa each Christmas for more than 20 years. Nast's depictions of Santa led to the creation of many of his now well-defined traits. On Jan. 1, 1881, Nast's most famous depiction of Santa was published in Harper's Weekly, showing Santa holding several toys while wearing his red-and-white suit, with a big belly and a smoking pipe.

It wasn't until 1931 that the classic "Coke Santa," illustrated by Haddon Sundblom, first began appearing in Coca-Cola advertisements. Sundblom had taken inspiration from Nast's drawings but made a few alterations of his own. He attempted to make Santa appear jollier and larger than life while also replacing the smoking pipe with a glass of Coca-Cola. The advertisements were so successful that Santa has been used as part of Coke marketing ever since.

Santa Claus in Department Stores

The idea of having Santa Claus visit department stores is said to have began at Macy's in New York City in 1861. Later, in 1924, Macy's expanded on the idea by having Santa Claus arrive as the finale for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The already well-known Macy's Santa became even more famous in 1947, when he was featured in the classic film Miracle on 34th Street.

However, not everyone agrees that department store Santas got their start with Macy's. Some claim that James Wood Parkinson of Philadelphia was the first person in history to host Santa at their store. The claim states that Santa would visit Parkinson's confectionery in the 1840s to entertain shoppers. Others give the credit for the first department store Santa to James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts, a Scottish immigrant and owner of a dry-goods store who dressed up as Santa to entertain children visiting his shop in 1890.

Regardless of where the department store Santas started, it wasn't long until stores all around the country were having visits from Santa. By the 1920s, Santa had become a main attraction for department stores throughout the U.S. decked with festive décor during the holiday season.

Additional Reading on Santa Claus and Christmas