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Santa Claus - St. Nicholas

His origin and history. Other Christmas traditions and news

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Origin of Santa Claus:

bullet4th century: There are two main, incompatible belief systems about St. Nicholas:
bulletAmong Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants, there is a near universal belief that St. Nicholas of Bari once lived in Asia Minor, and died in either 345 or 352 CE. The Catholic Information Network speculates that he was probably born in Patara in the province of Myra in Asia Minor; this is apparently based on the belief that he later became bishop of Myra in Lycia (now Turkey). 8. He is alleged to have attended the first council of Nicea; however, his name does not appear on lists of attending bishops. He is honored as a Patron Saint in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, Sicily, and Switzerland. 2 He is also considered the patron saint of children and sailors.

Many legends and miracles are attributed to him:
bulletWhen he was an infant, his mother only nursed him on Wednesdays and Fridays; he fasted the remaining days.

bulletHe halted a storm at sea in order to save three drowning sailors.

bulletDuring his lifetime, he adored children and often threw gifts anonymously into the windows of their homes.

bulletHis father left him a fortune which he used to help poor children.

bulletHe grabbed the sword of an executioner to save the life of a political prisoner.

bulletHe brought back to life several children who had been killed.

bulletSome religious historians and experts in folklore believe that there is no valid evidence to indicate that St. Nicholas ever existed as a human. In fact, there are quite a few indicators that his life story was simply recycled from those of Pagan gods. Many other ancient Pagan gods and goddesses were similarly Christianized in the early centuries of the Church. His legends seems to have been mainly created out of myths attributed to the Greek God Poseidon, the Roman God Neptune, and the Teutonic God Hold Nickar.  "In the popular imagination [of many Russians] he became the heir of Mikoula, the god of harvest, 'who will replace God, when God becomes too old.' " 8

When the church created the persona of St. Nicholas, they adopted Poseidon's title "the Sailor." They seem to have picked up his last name from Nickar. Various temples of Poseidon became shrines of St. Nicholas. 1 "In medieval England... in tiny sea ports we find the typical little chapel built on an eminence and looking out to sea." 8 St. Nicholas also adopted some of the qualities of "The Grandmother" or Befana from Italy. She was said to have filled children's stockings with gifts. Her shrine at Bari was also converted into a shrine to St. Nicholas.

The Christian church created a fictional life history for St. Nicholas. He was given the name  Hagios Nikolaos (a.k.a. St. Nicholas of Myra).

bullet10th century: The Christian author Metaphrastes collected and wrote many traditional legends about St. Nicholas.

bullet 11th century: The Roman Catholic Church taught that during the Muslim invasion of Asia Minor, his remains were transferred to Bari in Italy, where he became known as Nicholas of Bari.

bullet19th century: St. Nicholas was superseded in much of Europe by Christkindlein, the Christ child, who delivered gifts in secret to the children. He traveled with a dwarf-like helper called Pelznickel (a.k.a. Belsnickle) or with St. Nicholas-like figures. Eventually, all three were combined into the image that we now know as Santa Claus. "Christkindlein" became Kriss Kringle.

Before the communist revolution, large numbers of Russian Orthodox pilgrims came to Bari to visit St Nicholas' tomb. "He and St Andrew the apostle are the patrons of Russia." 8

bulletPresent day: 
bulletThroughout many countries in Europe, St. Nicholas/Santa distributes gifts to the children on DEC-5, the eve of his feast day. In some countries, the gifts come at another time during Advent or on Christmas eve. 

bulletIn Germany, Weinachtsmann (Christmas man) is a helper of the Christkind (Christ Child)

bulletIn France, P©re No©l distributes the gifts.

bulletIn Russia, under the influence of communism, St. Nicolas evolved into the secular Father Frost. He distributes toys to children on New Year's Eve. 3

bulletIn England, Father Christmas delivers the presents. He is shown with holly, ivy or mistletoe.

bulletIn Scandinavian countries, the ancient Pagan Yule goat has transmuted into Joulupukki - similar to the American Santa. 

bulletIn North America, Santa Claus rules, thanks to a certain brand of soda.

bulletAccording to Roman Catholic church, his body is said to have not decomposed. In his shrine in Bari, Italy, it is believed by many pilgrims to exude a sweet smelling odor which cures medical disorders and illnesses. 8

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History of Santa in America:

Santa Claus can be traced back for four centuries in the U.S.:

bullet1600's: The Puritans made it illegal to mention St. Nicolas' name. People were not allowed to exchange gifts, light a candle, or sing Christmas carols.

bullet17th century: Dutch immigrants brought with them the legend of Sinter Klaas.

bullet1773: Santa first appeared in the media as St. A Claus.

bullet1804: The New York Historical Society was founded with St. Nicolas as its patron saint. Its members engaged in the Dutch practice of gift-giving at Christmas. 

bullet1809: Washington Irving, writing under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, included Saint Nicolas in his book "A History of New York." Nicolas is described as riding into town on a horse.

bullet1812: Irving, revised his book to include Nicolas riding over the trees in a wagon.


1821: William Gilley printed a poem about "Santeclaus" who was dressed in fur and drove a sleigh drawn by a single reindeer. This was the first reference to reindeer associated with Christmas.

bullet 1822: Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) was a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at Columbia College (now Columbia University). He compiled a two volume Hebrew dictionary, and is believed by many to have written a poem "An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicolas," which became better known as "The Night before Christmas." Santa is portrayed as an elf with a miniature sleigh equipped with eight reindeer which are originally named in the poem as Blitzem, Comet, Cupid, Dancer, Dasher, Donder, Prancer, and Vixen. Others attribute the poem to a contemporary, Henry Livingston, Jr. Two reindeer have since been renamed Donner and Blitzen.

bullet1841: J.W. Parkinson, a Philadelphia merchant, hired a man to dress up in a "Criscringle" outfit and climb the chimney of his store.

bullet1863: Illustrator Thomas Nast created images of Santa for the Christmas editions of Harper's Magazine. These continued through the 1890's.

bullet1860s: President Abraham Lincoln asked Nast to create a drawing of Santa with some Union soldiers. This image of Santa supporting the enemy had a demoralizing influence on the Confederate army -- an early example of psychological warfare.

bullet1897: Francis P Church, Editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial in response to a letter  from an eight year-old girl, Virginia O'Hanlon. She had written the paper asking whether there really was a Santa Claus. It has become known as the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" letter. 4

bullet1920's: The image of Santa had been standardized to portray a bearded, over-weight, jolly man dressed in a red suit with white trim. 5

bullet1931: Haddon Sundblom, illustrator for The Coca-Cola © company drew a series of Santa images in their Christmas advertisements until 1964. The company holds the trademark for the Coca-Cola Santa design. Christmas ads including Santa continue to the present day.

bullet1939 Copywriter Robert L. May of the Montgomery Ward Company created a poem about Rudolph, the ninth reindeer. May had been "often taunted as a child for being shy, small and slight." He created an ostracized reindeer with a shiny red nose who became a hero one foggy Christmas eve. Santa was part-way through deliveries when the visibility started to degenerate. Santa added Rudolph to his team of reindeer to help illuminate the path. A copy of the poem was given free to Montgomery Ward customers. 6


1949: Johnny Marks wrote the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Rudolph was relocated to the North Pole where "he" was initially rejected by the other reindeer. They wouldn't let "him" play in their reindeer games because of "his" strange looking nose. The song was recorded by Gene Autry and became his all-time best seller. Second only to "White Christmas," it is the most popular U.S. song of all time.

Most people assume that Rudolph, and the traditional eight of Santa's reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen) are all male reindeer with antlers. But at Christmas time, the only reindeer with antlers are female, or males that have been castrated. Male reindeer grow their antlers just after mating season in the fall, and they fall off just before winter. So, Santa's nine reindeer may all be female! 9 Still, they are known to be magical reindeer. After all, they can fly. So perhaps the males in Santa's reindeer family keep their antlers at least until the end of December.

bullet1993: An urban folk tale began to circulate about a Japanese department store displaying a life-sized Santa Claus being crucified on a cross. It never happened.

bullet1997: Artist Robert Cenedella drew a painting of a crucified Santa Claus. It was displayed in the window of the New York's Art Students League and received intense criticism from some religious groups. His drawing was a protest. He attempted to show how Santa Claus had replaced Jesus Christ as the most important personality at Christmas time. 7

bullet 2017: Conservative Christians continue to complain about a "war on Christmas." These normally attack the policies of some stores who instruct their employees to wish customers "Happy Holidays" insead of "Merry Christmas." They do this because there are approximately 28 seasonal days of celebration in addition to Christmas that are celebrated from NOV-01 to JAN-15 by seven of the world's major religions. Wishing people "Merry Christmas" is interpreted be some people as ignoring or denegrating other celebrations. More details.


  1. Barbara G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets." Harper & Row, (1983) Pages 725 to 726.
  2. "St. Nicholas of Myra," The Catholic Encyclopedia, at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11063b.htm 
  3. "Father Frost," at: http://www.bobandbabs.com/ 
  4. "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," at: http://www.stormfax.com/virginia.htm 
  5. "The Claus that Refreshes," at: http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/santa.htm 
  6. "Rudolph," at: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/xmas/
  7. "R Cendella Gallery - Theme: Commentary," at http://www.rcenedellagallery.com
  8. "St. Nicholas of Bari (Fourth Century)," Catholic Information Network, at: http://www.cin.org/nichbari.html
  9. "Is Rudolph a girl?," The Old Farmer's Almanac, 2016?, at: https://www.almanac.com/

Site navigation: Home page > Christianity > Personalities > Santa > here

Copyright © 1999 to 2017, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-24
Latest update: 2017-DEC-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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