The Modern Santa
Ask any child what Santa looks like, and he or she can
probably describe him - he's a big guy with a white beard, a red suit
and hat, and a reindeer-drawn sleigh. But how did the gift-giving habits
of Nicholas, a Christian saint who lived in the third century, evolve into
the myth of a jolly old elf that slides down chimneys?
people, political cartoonist Thomas Nast and author Clement C. Moore can
largely take credit for popularizing today's image of Santa as a jolly,
rotund fellow who wears a fur-trimmed red suit. But the evolution from St.
Nicholas to the image of today's Santa occurred over a long
Nicholas was born in 270 AD in what is now Turkey. His
parents were wealthy, devout Christians who died when he was little.
Following Jesus' advice to give to the poor, Nicholas gave away his
entire inheritance to the poor and needy. He became the Bishop of Myra
while still a young man, and continued to help those in need, particularly
Nicholas was known for his generosity. The most
popular legend about St. Nicholas tells of a poor man who had three
daughters but couldn't afford a dowry for them. This meant that they
would remain unmarried and probably, in the absence of any other possible
employment, would have to become prostitutes. Nicholas decided to help the
man by going to his house at night and throwing three purses (one for each
daughter) filled with gold coins through the window.
version of the story has him throwing the coins down the chimney, which
explains the connection to Santa's preference for entering homes via
The legend of this generous saint was brought to
the New World by Dutch settlers, and the name Santa Claus would evolve
from the Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas.
The saint became a part of local lore when John Pintard founded the New
York Historical Society in 1804 and made St. Nicholas the patron saint of
the society and New York City.
St. Nick received another boost
a few years later when Washington Irving joined the society and published
a work called Knickerbockers' History of New York on St. Nicholas Day.
The work contained numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas
It was Clement Clarke Moore's poem, "A Visit from
St. Nicholas," (now better known as "The Night Before Christmas") that
cemented St. Nicholas' image as "a jolly old elf" with a "little round
belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly." Moore
reportedly wrote the poem for his family in 1822. It was first printed in
a newspaper a year later, and it then became popular and was reprinted
anonymously in a number of publications.
Thomas Nast helped popularize the image Moore created in the famous poem.
In 1863 Nast began drawing a series of annual cartoons for Harper's
Weekly that was based on the character in the poem and in Washington
Irving's work. Nash's Santa has a beard, fur clothing, and a pipe, and was
the basis for many Santas to follow. He was also the one to invent the
North Pole, elves, and Mrs. Claus.
By the early 1900s, the
image of Santa in a red suit and hat was so common that the Volunteers of
America began dressing men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the
streets of New York to solicit donations for the Christmas meals for the
needy. Later, artists such as Norman Rockwell and companies such as
Coca-Cola continued to popularize the image of Santa Claus as a bearded
fellow in a red suit in both artwork and advertising.
Santa Claus is now a common image of Christmas who still carries on the
spirit of giving that St. Nicholas started centuries ago and his likeness
is known across the world.