The mythical legend of Santa Claus, the well know jolly old man bearing gifts on Christmas Eve is known around the world by a large variety of names. In Britain he is known as Father Christmas, in France he is Pere Noel, in Germany children call him Kris Kringle, and in Chile he is Viejo Pascuero. Though each version of Santa may go by a different name and have a different myth or story behind him, the essence of his job remains the same through the world. On Christmas night he delivers presents to the good children of the world, and coal, a wooden paddle, or another bad gift to the naughty children.
The first Saint Nicholas originated from a real person, Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas is famous for the story of him helping an extremely poor family by dropping sacks of gold through an open window into the shoes of three daughters to save them from a fate of living their lives as prostitutes. This act, along with many others, eventually got Nicholas arrested and he served the rest of his life in jail. Along with the jail time it also inspired Saint Nicholas Day, his feast day of December 6 that was established when he was canonized after he died. On the night of December 5 Saint Nick, or Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, dropped money and treats into the shoes of good children. Saint Nicholas remains a favorite saint of many in Greek and Latin churches.
Over the years, Santa Claus has emerged from this story and many of the components in today’s traditional American christmas celebrations can be found in pieces of history from around the world. While Saint Nicholas Day is still celebrated, Santa Claus delivering on Christmas Eve is celebrated a lot more today. Stockings are hung because Saint Nick originally dropped gold into shoes. Christmas trees are set up because when Kris Kringle emerged, story told that he brought a Christmas Tree to each house in addition to the presents.
Many of the elements of Christmas also come from poems and stories written long ago. The reindeer and sleigh, along with the idea that he came through the house by jumping down the chimney,were first inspired by Clement Moore in “Twas the Night Before Christmas” in 1823 and Rudolph was introduced by Robert May in 1939. The reindeer then inspired Christmas lights so that Santa Claus was able to find the house in the dark and land on the roof. Elves were introduced by Louisa May Alcott in an unpublished book Christmas Elves and the concept was grasped and popularized by many other authors thereafter.
The image of Santa Claus has changed throughout the years as well. He was originally drawn as a scrawny, elf type creature, however that all changed with Clement Moore’s poem coupled with the illustrations by Thomas Nast. A fat version of Santa was further popularized by the traditional American artist Norman Rockwell, who drew Santa Claus over thirty times throughout his career.
Today, movies, cartoons, and books continue to keep the spirit of Santa Claus alive. They pull from ancient traditions while adding more modern explanations and generation after generation will continue to believe in jolly old Saint Nick.