Santa Claus has long been one of the most enduring figures of the Christmas season, but where did this jolly old character come from? One of the earliest traditions in which a form of Santa Claus can be seen is an ancient German custom involving a mythical being named Odin. It was believed that on the Winter Solstice (December 21st), Odin would fly through the night sky and determine who would prosper and who would fail in the coming year. Another basis for the legend comes from the stories of Saint Nicholas, a well-known and popular saint from the 300s. Amongst the many stories attributed to Saint Nicholas is one legend in which he donated large sums of money to a poor family.
When they refused his help, he tossed the money down their chimney so that they might find it the next morning (this gave us the origin of Santa’s means of entering a home). However, the largest portion of the Santa Claus legend was given to us by Dutch tales of Sinterklaas (pronounced Sin-ter Klows). Sinterklaas is also based on the stories of Saint Nicholas, and Sinterklass traditionally visits Dutch children on December 6th (St. Nicholas Day).
The character of Sinterklaas arrives on a boat from Spain.
He wears a red bishop’s robe and is usually depicted as having a long, white beard. Children leave their boots next to the fire in hopes that Sinterklaas will leave presents, or possibly fruit in them. When Dutch settlers came to the area that is today New York, they brought the traditions of Sinterklaas with them. The name eventually became Americanized into Santa Claus. In the 1820s, Santa gained some more of his modern characteristics.
Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” provided a physical description which we use as the basis for our modern interpretation.
Also, the notion of Santa’s team of flying reindeer and his home at the North Pole can be traced to the 1820s. In the 1860s, an artist named Thomas Nast drew what became the definitive image of Santa Claus. These drawings were based on the description given in “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” This image was reinforced throughout the 20th Century through paintings, advertisements, films, and television programs.
In 1902, a children’s book called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus further popularized the character of Santa Claus and his magic elves in American culture.
Today, Santa Claus is firmly in place as one of the most iconic symbols of the Christmas tradition. He is recognized in virtually every culture, and each and every year, children around the world eagerly anticipate his arrival..