A saint who became Santa

19th century image of 'Merry Old Santa' by Thomas Nast.
19th century image of 'Merry Old Santa' by Thomas Nast. / SUR
  • Santa Claus evolved from traditions surrounding St Nicholas, a bishop with a reputation for secret gift-giving

Santa Claus is a character that brings joy to children all around the world in the weeks leading to Christmas, and especially on Christmas Eve. As youngsters, we were told that Father Christmas, as he is affectionately known in the UK, lived in Lapland and only ventured out on his reindeers once a year to deliver presents to the "well-behaved" children. Later in life, we discovered that the man behind the story of Santa Claus is St Nicholas, an early Christian bishop who lived in ancient Greece at the time of the Roman Empire.

St Nicholas was said to have inherited a vast wealth from his parents and this gave rise to stories concerning his generosity, especially among underprivileged children.

The custom of hanging up the Christmas stocking is said to have evolved because of the saint's charitable nature. Legend claims that on Christmas Eve he would toss small bags of gold coins through the windows of the homes of the poor. After one bag landed in a child's stocking that was hanging to dry, news soon spread, and children (and their parents) began hanging out a stocking on the night before Christmas.

Very little is known about the historical Saint Nicholas. The earliest accounts of his life were written centuries after his death and contain much elaboration. He is said to have had a reputation for secret gift-giving and most of the tales are based on his generosity.

The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding this historical character. Pre-modern representations of St Nicholas merged with the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas and created the character known to Americans and the rest of the English-speaking world as Santa Claus. Washington Irving Americanised Sinterklaas into Santa Claus in his book, History of New York, in 1809.

However, it was not until later in the 19th century that the spirit of Saint Nicholas would evolve into Santa Claus, although unlike the saint, Santa was a non-religious character.

Father Christmas, dates back to the 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII. He was portrayed as a large man in green robes lined with fur who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas. England no longer celebrated the feast day of St Nicholas on 6 December, so the Father Christmas celebration was moved to the 24th of December to coincide with Christmas Day.

Victorian revival

The Victorian revival of Christmas included Father Christmas as the emblem of good cheer, although his physical appearance was variable, as the illustration of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens festive classic demonstrates.

The image of Santa developed as a jolly old man with a white beard dressed in a red suit trimmed with fur. The modern version of Santa was created by Thomas Nast, an American caricaturist who based Santa on the traditional German figures of Sankt Nikolaus. Nast immortalised Santa in Harper's Weekly in 1863, with an illustration of Santa dressed in the American flag.

The idea of Santa on an airborne sleigh pulled by eight reindeers was due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem, A Visit from St Nicholas. According to legend, the poem was composed by Clement Clarke Moore on a snowy winter's day during a shopping trip on a sleigh. Moore's poem is behind many of the features that are still associated with Santa Claus today.