Like America itself, the jolly figure we call Santa Claus is a melting pot of cultures, blending elements of folklore with the fantastical.
Santa Claus the man is actually loosely rooted in fact, though he hasn't always looked the way he does today, having evolved from a gift-giving Catholic saint who lived during the third century.
The Protestant Reformation and the emigration of European traditions to America morphed that pious figure into the red-suited character that is now one of the most famous images in the world, complete with his iconic army of elves and a magical transportation system.
St. Nicholas the Generous
Ol' St. Nick wasn't always the rotund, bearded fellow you see gracing Christmas cards. The historical St. Nicholas was the revered Bishop of Myra, a Roman town in what is now Turkey. Born around the year 270 A.D., historians believe, Nicholas became bishop as a young man.
Nicholas was dedicated to helping the poor throughout his life, famously (and anonymously) paying for the dowries of impoverished girls. His reputation as a secret gift-giver around town grew with time, and he became known especially for depositing coins or treats in the shoes of children who would place them out for that very purpose, sometimes in exchange for carrots or hay left for his horses. Nicholas is traditionally depicted wearing a red bishop's cloak, and was often helped by a small orphan boy, according to some legends.
Canonized after his death, St. Nicholas was named as the patron saint of children, sailors and all of Greece, among others. He remained a popular figure of worship through the Middle Ages, with elaborate feasts held each year on the date of his death — Dec. 6 — and small gifts given to children, usually in their shoes, in his honor.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, when the veneration of Catholic saints was suppressed in many regions of Europe, saw a drop in the popularity of St. Nicholas.
Only in The Netherlands was the celebration of St. Nicholas kept alive in the form of Sinterklaas, a kindly figure who traveled from house to house on the evening of Dec. 5, leaving treats or presents in children's shoes in exchange for a snack for his horses, according to folklore.
In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas wore red bishop's robes, had elfin assistants, and rode his horses over rooftops before slipping down the chimney to deliver the gifts.
Coming to America
Sinterklaas came to America with the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was in the new colonies that he really evolved.
The anglicizing of the name — from Sinterklaas to Santa Claus — happened by 1773, when the latter was referenced for the first time, in a New York City newspaper. Santa's waistline expanded in 1809 with the publication of author Washington Irving's book "A History of New York," in which the big man is described as portly and smoking a pipe instead of as a lanky bishop.
In an 1822 poem entitled "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" — more commonly called "Twas the Night Before Christmas" — by Clement Moore, Santa is further imagined with a magic sleigh powered by reindeer, a sack full of toys, and a round stomach, "like a bowl full of jelly."
By the late 1800s, most depictions of Santa Claus followed this imagery, but the final cog in the Claus legend was provided by Coca-Cola ad illustrator Haddon Sundblom, whose 1930s red-suited Santa, complete with white-fur trim and leather boots, became the iconic standard recognizable today.
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