Our modern day version of Santa is actually a combination of various legends and traditions from around the world.
Patron Saint of Gift Giving
The original Santa Claus can be traced back to 4th-century Hagios Nikolas, the bishop of Myra. He became famous for his generous gifts to the poor. One popular legend had him tossing bags of gold through a window for three poor women to use as dowries. After his death in 335 A.D., he was canonized as the Patron Saint of Giving. Throughout the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas gathered many followers, eventually becoming the patron saint of Greece and Russia, as well as Amsterdam. To this day, in celebration of his memory, gifts are given out on his feast day, December 6.
Although he lives in Lapland, where he wears a longer coat and beard, Father Christmas could easily be mistaken for Santa Claus. His origins can be traced back to the Druids, when Old Man Winter was worshipped. He would be invited into ever home for food and drinks. In turn, he would bless them with a gentle winter. By the 1800s, Father Christmas started coming down the chimney to leave treats in children’s stockings. In warmer climates, children leave their shoes outside by the front door for Father Christmas to fill with sweets and toys.
In North America, Kris Kringle is interchangeable with Santa, thanks in part to the classic movie, Miracle on 34th Street, but the two are very different. The name is a mispronunciation of “Christkindl“-German for Christ Child. Introduced by Martin Luther to counteract the popularity of Saint Nicholas, this figure was often depicted by a girl, dressed as an angel, who handed out gifts to children.
When they settled New Amsterdam (now New York), the Dutch brought their patron saint with them.
Sinter Klass (St. Nicholas) wore a broad brimmed hat and smoked a long pipe. Along with his assistant, Black Peter, he arrives by ship to hand out gifts.
Santa Comes Into His Own
In 1822, Clement Moore published his famous The Night Before Christmas, inspired by an article by the poet Washington Irwin. But it was political cartoonist Thomas Nast who created the modern Santa Claus. In 1862, Nast drew Santa for the cover for Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s Santa was a kindly figure in a red suit visiting troops on the Civil War battlefield. The image stuck and Nast drew the annual Harper’s Santa cover until 1886, adding the sleigh, reindeer and his home at the North Pole.
Santa Around the World
Who Santa is depends on where you are from. Here’s a list of his names from around the world:
- Brazil and Peru: Papa Noel
- Canada/US: Santa Claus
- China: Shengdan Laoren
- England: Father Christmas
- Finland: Joulupukki.
- France: Pere Noel
- Japan: Santa no ojisan (Uncle Sanata)
- Germany: Christkindl
- Italy: Babbo Noel
- Ireland: Aither Nollaig
- Latin America: el Niño (the infant Jesus)
- Netherlands: Kerstman or Sinter Klaas
- Norway: På Norsk
- Sweden: Jultomten
- Russia: Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost)
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight.”
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