Who Was That Man In The Red Suit?: History of Santa Claus

Dec 17, 2011 | 2011 Articles, Diana Bulls, Hometown History

by Diana Bulls

For millions of children, the night of December 24 is the longest night of the year. While tucked in their beds, they anxiously await the arrival of Santa Claus, the gift-toting, jolly visitor from the North Pole. But who is Santa Claus anyway?

In looking for Santa’s roots, we have to go back quite a way in history. First off, we find that Santa Claus is a Christian-era figure, but on the other hand, he is a combination of legends, traditions from many cultures.

St. Nick

The first Santa Claus was known as St. Nicholas, a Turkish bishop who lived in the fourth century A.D. He was very rich and loved children. He was credited with a number of miracles involving sailors and children. Legend says that he would deliver gifts late at night so no one would know his identity. After his death, he was made a saint and he has a special feast day that is celebrated on December 6.

Near the time that St. Nicholas lived, Pope Julius I decided to establish a date for Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus. No one really knew the actual time of year that Jesus was born, but the Pope picked December 25. The pagans celebrated the winter solstice at that time, and the Pope hoped the new holiday combined with this celebration would become more Christian than pagan.

Time passed, and Saint Nicholas’s feast day became associated with December 25. A tradition developed that the good saint would visit homes on Christmas Eve and children would place nuts, apples, sweets and other items around the house to welcome him. In keeping with the Saint wanting to remain anonymous, children were told to hurry to bed and to sleep or St. Nicholas would not visit.

The French began celebrating St. Nicholas Day in the 1200s, and by the end of the 1400s, St. Nicholas was the third most beloved religious figure, after Jesus and Mary.

The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch pronunciation of St. Nicholas, Sinter Klass. St. Nicholas is usually seen wearing a red cloak, a white alb (vestment), and a red bishop’s mitre. He often rode a white horse, and carried a large book with all the good children’s names written down. He was assisted by “Black Peter” whose job it was to hand out sticks and thumps on the head to naughty children.

As the reformation moved across Europe, St. Nicholas’ popularity dwindled. Most Protestant countries, with the exception of Holland, came to call him der Weinachtsmann in Germany, and Father Christmas in England.

Early Dutch settlers in New York (once called New Amsterdam) brought their traditions of St Nicholas. As children from other countries tried to pronounce Sinter Klass, this soon became Santa Klass, and eventually Santa Claus. The bishop’s cloak with mitre was replaced with a long, fur-trimmed coat of various colors.

America’s Santa

The early Dutch settlers in New York brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas to America, but, research shows that he didn’t play much of a part in early celebrations. It is more likely that Saint Nicholas became an American tradition following the Revolutionary War. As early as 1773, the name St. A. Claus appeared in newspapers, and Washington Irving (the author of Sleepy Hollow) gave Americans their first detailed description and information about St. Nicholas in 1809.

The Dutch-American Saint Nicholas became fully Americanized in the 1823 poem by Clement Moore: “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (or as most of us know it, “The Night Before Christmas”). The poet drew upon the Dutch traditions, as well as German and Norse legends to describe Santa as a tiny elf with a team of miniature reindeer, flying from house to house, sliding down chimneys and filling stockings with gifts.

In the 1870s, cartoonist Thomas Nast, who worked for Harper’s Weekly, did a series of drawings of Santa Claus. Nast is also credited with giving Santa a workshop at the North Pole. Here, assisted by elves, Santa builds toys throughout the year in anticipation of delivery on Christmas Eve. Throughout the 19th century, Santa was shown wearing suits of green, purple, white or red and is usually shown carrying a large bag full of toys and gifts.

Coca-Cola ads in the 1930s showed Santa as human-sized rather than an elf. He was also shown wearing a red, fur-trimmed suit that we all know and love today. By the way, Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, with a red and shiny nose, was invented in 1939 by an advertising writer for the Montgomery Ward Company.

Did You Know? (or Some Santa Trivia)

• The first department store Santa appeared in 1890 in Brockton, MA.
• You can receive the degree “Master of Santa Claus” from the International School of Santa Claus.
• The Macy’s Santa Claus is often said to be the REAL Santa.
• The USPS has the oldest Christmas letter answering effort by a national postal system.
• In letters, girls request presents for other people more often than boys do.
• A letter to Santa is often a child’s first experience with letter writing.
• Every Nordic country claims that Santa’s home lies within their territory.
• In 2006, the French Postal Service received 1,200,000 letters to Santa from 126 countries.
• Father Christmas generally wore green robes.
• St. Nicholas is sometimes seen riding in a goat cart.
• Mrs. Claus first appeared in 1889.
• Every Christmas Eve since 1955, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) has tracked the progress of Santa’s sleigh throughout the world.

Diana Bulls is an ongoing contributor to our
Hometown History section, having collected vintage kitchen utensils for over 40 years; she is also actively involved with the Reedley Historical Society.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.