There’s a lot to be said about how St. Nicholas evolved into the white-bearded, jolly Santa Claus we generally know and love today… but as if you have time to read a novella. Here’s the stocking stuffer version of how it all came to be.
The real St. Nick wasn’t a fat, pale, and rosy-cheeked jolly fella. He was quite the opposite.
Born almost 300 years after Christ, Saint Nicholas was a darker complected Greek holy man who became bishop of a small town called Myra (now present-day Turkey). Sure, he probably had jolly good days, but his reputation was of a more serious nature: He was described as a firebrand and staunch defender of Christian doctrine and spent years in prison for refusing to reject his faith during religious persecution.
Portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes, Saint Nicholas’s feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6th. His strong faith created a lasting legacy among the saints, and as such, two main stories planted the seed that would — many centuries later — bring about the fat, bearded man in a red suit bearing gifts to young children.
What were those two stories? The first reinforced Saint Nicholas’s reputation as protector of the poor. Legend has it that he saved three impoverished daughters from a life of prostitution by providing for their dowries. He offered three bags of gold for the young women, of which he tossed through an open window. The bags of gold landed into socks that were left near the chimney to dry.
The second tale, which is rather morbid, reinforced his reputation as protector of children. Saint Nicholas walked into an Athens inn and discovered through his holy senses that the local inn keeper had robbed, murdered, and then pickled three young men in basement barrels. The Saint fervently prayed and resurrected their bodies back to life.
Despite various iterations handed down over the centuries, Dutch settlers brought the legend of Saint Nicholas, known to them as Sinter Klaas, to America towards the end of the 18th century. As their tradition goes, Sinter Klaas rode a white horse and left gifts in wooden shoes. This story merged with the British character Father Christmas, who dates back at least as far as the 17th century. Sinter Klaas was eventually Americanized to “Santa Claus.”
The rituals and fantasy surrounding Santa Claus became fixed in the modern American imagination with the publication of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Moore in 1823. Better known as “The Night Before Christmas,” the poem established Santa’s physical appearance (plump and jolly), his mode of transportation (a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer), and his method of toy delivery (down the chimney) for generations to come.