Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, and simply Santa, is a mythical figure with legendary, historical and folkloric origins.
Santa Claus is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve, December 24.
He accomplishes this feat with the aid of his elves, who make the toys in his workshop at the North Pole, and his flying reindeer, who pull his sleigh. Santa Claus is commonly portrayed as living at the North Pole and saying “ho ho ho” often.
Today, he is thought of mainly as the jolly man in red, but his story stretches all the way back to the 3rd century.
The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding the historical Saint Nicholas, the British figure of Father Christmas and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (himself also based on Saint Nicholas).
Saint Nicholas was a Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Empire (now in Turkey). It is believed that Nicholas was born around 280 A.D. in Patara, which was an area where people of Greek heritage lived; the town is now in modern-day Turkey. In his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and the Palestine area. Shortly after his return he became Bishop of Myra and was later cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian. He was released after the accession of Constantine and was present at the Council of Nicaea. According to Western Christian tradition, Italian merchants took his body to Italy in 1087.
Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, a practice celebrated on his feast day, 6 December. This date was earlier than the original day of gifts for the children, which moved in the course of the Reformation and its opposition to the veneration of saints in many countries on the 24th and 25th of December.
The modern city of Demre, Turkey is built near the ruins of the saint’s home town of ancient Myra, and attracts many Eastern European tourists as St. Nicholas is a very popular Orthodox saint. Saint Nicholas is a popular subject portrayed on countless Eastern Orthodox icons.
Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to the 25th of December to coincide with Christmas Day. The Victorian revival of Christmas included Father Christmas as the emblem of ‘good cheer’.
Saint Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773, and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.
The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas).
Some modern ideas of Santa Claus seemingly became canon after the anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on 23 December 1823.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century, that the image of Santa became standardized as a full-size adult, dressed in red with white fur trim, venturing out from the North Pole in a reindeer-driven sleigh and keeping an eye on children’s behavior.
One of the first artists to define Santa Claus’s modern image was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. [Image below: 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast]
This image of Santa became very popular, with more artists drawing Santa in his red and white costume from 1900 to 1930.
Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was invented by The Coca-Cola Company or that Santa wears red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand.
Santa Claus lives on the North Pole, which according to Canada Post lies within Canadian jurisdiction in postal code H0H 0H0 (a reference to “ho ho ho”, Santa’s notable saying, although postal codes starting with H are usually reserved for the island of Montreal in Québec).
There is also a city named North Pole in Alaska where a tourist attraction known as the “Santa Claus House” has been established. The United States Postal Service uses the city’s ZIP code of 99705 as their advertised postal code for Santa Claus.
Each Nordic country claims Santa’s residence to be within their territory.
The idea of a wife for Santa Claus may have been the creation of American authors, beginning in the mid-19th century. In 1889, the poet Katharine Lee Bates popularized Mrs. Claus in the poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride”.
In traditional festive legend, Santa Claus’s reindeer pull a sleigh through the night sky to help Santa Claus deliver gifts to children on Christmas Eve. The commonly cited names of the eight reindeer are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. They are based on those used in the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (commonly called “The Night Before Christmas”).
Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all,” was born over a hundred years after his eight flying counterparts. The red-nosed wonder was the creation of Robert L. May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store.
In the United States and Canada, children traditionally leave Santa a glass of milk and a plate of cookies; in Britain and Australia, he is sometimes given sherry or beer, and mince pies instead. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden, it is common for children to leave him rice porridge with cinnamon sugar instead. In Ireland it is popular to give him Guinness or milk, along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Is There a Santa Claus?” was the title of an editorial appearing in the 21 September 1897 edition of The New York Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”, has become an indelible part of popular Christmas lore in the United States and Canada. It is the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language.
A 68-year-old man legally named Santa Claus — he’s got the passport and other legal identification to prove it — was elected to a city council seat in the North Pole. The jolly looking white-bearded man won his write-in campaign with 58 votes from the 2,200 person city, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
There is a Santa Claus University that teaches professional Santa Claus skills like toy knowledge, poses, and how to avoid a lawsuit. A top-level Santa Claus can make up to $100,000 a year.
The largest gathering of Santa Claus was achieved by 18,112 people during an event organised by Thrissur Citizenry & Thrissur Archdiocese (India) for Buon Natale Programme 2014 at Nagar Saktan Thampuran Ground, Thrissur, Kerala, India, on 27 December 2014. The event was organised to raise charitable funds in aid of the poor.