The origins of this famous character are very old, and while some people link it to ancient deities such as Odin, Thor and Saturn, this story begins with a real person: the Bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra, in the 4th century of our era.
Image from the St. Nicholas Center
Saint Nicholas was born around the year 280 in Patara, Lycia, an area that is part of present-day Turkey. He lost both of his parents as a young man and served as bishop of Myra, a city that is now called Demre. ¹
When Saint Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, there were among his people three beautiful maidens whose father was so poor that he could not afford to give them dowries. Because in that land no maid might marry without a dowry, these three maidens could not wed the youths who loved them.
One day Saint Nicholas heard of the sad state of this family. So at night, when the maidens were asleep, and the father was watching, sorrowful and lonely, the good saint took a handful of gold, and, tying it in a purse, set off for the man’s house. Creeping to the open window he threw the purse into the chamber, so that it fell on the bed of the sleeping maidens. ²
Because of this and other stories, St. Nicholas became venerated as the patron saint of marginalized groups, such as orphans and sailors. His goodness had already become legend.
Many soon sought in this good bishop the protection and guidance they needed. And soon the word spread throughout northern Europe. Russia and Greece also made him their own saint, as well as children, students, repentant thieves, and prostitutes. ³
He was a popular saint in Europe until the time of the Reformation in the 1500s, a religious movement that led to the creation of Protestantism, which turned away from the practice of honoring saints. Saint Nicholas, however, remained an important figure in Holland.
The Dutch continued to celebrate the feast day of Saint Nicholas, December 6. It was a common practice for children to put out their shoes the night before. In the morning, they would discover the gifts that Saint Nicholas had left there for them.
In 1808, the American writer Washington Irving wrote a satire entitled “A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty” under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. In this text the writer imagined a Saint Nicholas who traveled in a wagon pulled by horses, through the tops of the trees and dropping gifts through the chimneys.
By satirically inventing a false tradition of Dutch settlers venerating St. Nicholas, Irving inadvertently gave rise to a very real tradition of Americans venerating St. Nick. ⁴ The Dutch name Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, and instead of giving gifts on December 6, he became a part of the Christmas holiday.
Later in 1822, Dr. Clement Clarke Moore resumed the subject and wrote “The Night before Christmas”. He added a Scandinavian ingredient and changed the horses for reindeer . In addition, much of what we know as Santa’s features was created by him. For example, the laughter, his nose and his good-natured air come from this beautiful poem.
In 1931, graphic artist Haddon Sundblom and other publicists who worked for the Coca Cola Company created a design that resembled a tender grandfather. The striking red color and bright eyes of the Saint was the one that ended up conquering adults and children around the world until today. ⁵
I wouldn’t like to end the story with an advertising piece, so let’s agree that the modern-day image of Santa Claus is a combination of many elements from various cultures and traditions.
In any way, his kindness reflects the innocence of a child regardless of how we choose (or not) to celebrate him. In Wicca, this child is now the Sun god who is starting to be reborn once again.
Have a Blessed Winter!