Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and Sinterklaas, is a figure with both historical and mythical aspects who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to all good children on Christmas Eve.
Researchers say that early descriptions of the gift-giver from church history and folklore – in particular Saint Nicholas and Christkindl – merged with the British character Father Christmas to create the character known to Britons and Americans today as Santa Claus. Here’s a basic rundown on Santa’s origins.
Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas: The historical Saint Nicholas was a fourth century Greek Christian bishop who lived in what is today Turkey. Famous for his Christian devotion and generous gifts to the poor, he became the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.
Father Christmas: Father Christmas, a British character, typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, but he neither brought gifts nor was particularly associated with children.
Kris Kringle: Christkindl, or the Christ Child, was the Austrian and Bavarian Christmas gift-bringer. (You also might remember that in the movie Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle is the given name of the Santa character.)
From Sinterklaas to Santa Claus: In the British colonies of North America and later the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. For example, in Washington Irving's 1809 History of New York, Sinterklaas was Americanized into "Santa Claus," lost his bishop’s apparel and was pictured humorously as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat.
A Visit from St. Nicholas: This famous poem, first published 1823, is almost singlehandedly responsible for our modern concept of Santa Claus. Earlier, American ideas about St. Nicholas varied considerably. Afterward, his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, as well as the tradition that he brings toys to good boys and girls was firmly established. The part of the poem describing St. Nick is reproduced below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,? But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,? With a little old driver, so lively and quick,? I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick….?
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,? Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:? He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,?And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;? A bundle of toys was flung on his back,? And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack:? His eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,? His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;? His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,? And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;? The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, ?And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.?
He had a broad face, and a little round belly? that shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly:? He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,? And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself; ?A wink of his eye and a twist of his head soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread. He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, ?And fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jerk,? And laying his finger aside of his nose and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.?
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,? And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:? But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight –
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.?
– Anonymous but attributed to Clement Clark Moore