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Just Who is Santa Claus, Anyway? The History of Santa Claus (Photos Included)

The man, the myth, the legend...

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle or simply “Santa” is a legendary figure who, in many Western cultures, brings gifts to the homes of the good children on Christmas.

You know this.  But did you know how the American version of Santa Claus came to be?

The American version of Santa Claus – and the world that surrounds him including Mrs Claus, Rudolph and the North Pole – is a combination of a historical figure, many different legends, the work of American writers and illustrators and yes, the advertising creations of corporations.

Click onward to see how what we currently know as Christmas and the legend of Santa Claus came to be.  After reading this, you’ll be prepared to answer any and all childrens’ questions about who Santa Claus really is and where he comes from.

It all started with a man who lived 1,700 years ago in what we now know as Turkey…

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  • Bishop Nicholas 1 of 16
    Bishop Nicholas
    Bishop Nicholas lived in 4th century A.D. (1,700 years ago) in Smyrna, which is now Turkey. Nick was known for his generosity and love of children. It is said that he was wealthy and would often cheer up poor children by throwing gifts in through their windows.
    Image: A Medieval fresco depicting St. Nicholas from Wikipedia
  • Saint Nicholas 2 of 16
    Saint Nicholas
    The Orthodox Church later raised St. Nicholas, miracle worker, to a position of great esteem. The Roman Catholic Church honored Nicholas and he became the patron saint of children and seafarers.
    He is still honored in Europe on Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death. Image: DarganBullivant.com.
  • Sinterklaas 3 of 16
    Sinterklaas
    In the Protestant areas of central and northern Germany, St. Nicholas later became known as der Weinachtsmann. In England he came to be called Father Christmas. Patron saints of sailors and the city of Amsterdam where the Dutch live called him Sinterklaas. St. Nicholas made his way to the United States with those Dutch immigrants. Popular author Washington Irving gave Americans their first detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. In his History of New York, published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving described the arrival of the saint on horseback each Eve of Saint Nicholas.
  • The Night Before Christmas 4 of 16
    The Night Before Christmas
    In 1821, William Gilley published a booklet for children about "Santeclaus". It was called A New Year's Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children's Friend. It was the first literary reference connecting reindeer with Santa.
    This Dutch-American Saint Nick achieved his fully Americanized form in 1823 in the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas by writer Clement Clarke Moore. Moore created the names of the reindeer (minus Rudolph) and had Santa Claus laughing, winking and, referred to as an elf, Saint Nicholas uses a chimney. The poem shaped the imagination of who Santa Claus is and what he looks like.
    You can read more about how Clement Clarke Moore came to write A Visit From Santa Claus by clicking here
  • Enter Santa Claus 5 of 16
    Enter Santa Claus
    Moore's poem provided inspiration for Thomas Nast. Nast, an illustrator of political cartoons, is credited with creating our popular image of Santa Claus. The artist gained notoriety for his early wood engravings, like this one, of Christmas scenes published in Harper's Weekly.
    All of these illustrations appeared in Harper's Weekly newspapers in the years 1863 -1865. You can view them here.
  • Santa Gets Hitched 6 of 16
    Santa Gets Hitched
    According to this site, the idea of a wife for Santa Claus may have been the creation of several American authors, beginning in the mid-1800s.
    In 1889, the poet Katherine Lee Bates popularized Mrs. Claus in the poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride. You can read her poem here. "Goody" was a common contraction of the day for "goodwife". It also closely resembles the name of the Dutch ship which landed at present day New York in 1626: Goede Vrowe, which also means "goodwife."
    The 1956 popular song by George Melachrino, Mrs. Santa Claus, and the 1963 children's book How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas, by Phyllis McGinley, also helped establish her character in popular imagination
  • The Real North Pole 7 of 16
    The Real North Pole
    Curious kiddies, of course, wanted to know where Santa Claus actually came from. Where did he live when he wasn't delivering presents? Those questions gave rise to the legend that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole, where his Christmas-gift workshop was also located. 40 years later cartoonist Thomas Nast added to the myth making Santa a resident of the North Pole.
    In 1925 an explanation was even created for where the North Pole is "really" located. Since grazing reindeer would not be possible at the North Pole, newspapers revealed that Santa Claus really lived in Finnish Lapland. "Uncle Markus", Markus Rautio, who hosted the popular "Children's hour" on Finnish public radio, revealed the great secret for the first time in 1927: Santa Claus lives on Lapland's Korvatunturi in Finland. Santa has the assistance of a busy group of elves, who have a legendary history in Scandinanvian lore.
  • The Commercialization of Santa 8 of 16
    The Commercialization of Santa
    Remember, up until this point Santa Claus was depicted as a magical elf. A human-sized version of Santa Claus, rather than the elf of Moore's poem, was depicted in a series of illustrations for Coca-Cola advertisements in 1931 that introduced and made the red Santa Suits an icon. In modern versions of the Santa Claus legend, only his toy-shop workers are elves.
  • Urban Legend 9 of 16
    Urban Legend
    The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was invented by The Coca-Cola Company or that Santa wears red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand.
  • Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer 10 of 16
    Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
    The character Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created in 1939 by Robert L. May as an advertising gimmick for Montgomery Ward. The store distributed millions of coloring books featuring Rudolph between 1939 and 1944.
  • The Song 11 of 16
    The Song
    May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote a song (THE song) about Rudolph, which was recorded by Gene Autry and became a hit in 1949 and later aired in the Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special voiced by Burl Ives.
  • The Christmas Television Special 12 of 16
    The Christmas Television Special
    Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer stop-motion television special was based on Rudolph and used the song. It first aired on NBC in 1964 and has aired every year since making it televisons longest running Christmas special and solidifying Rudolph as a part of the Christmas story.
  • Modern Movie Santa 13 of 16
    Modern Movie Santa
    Since Coca-Cola introduced their coke-swilling version of Santa the jolly old elf hasn't changed much. Recent movies like The Santa Clause have modernized Santa's image, portraying him as an everyday Joe, to help explain the legend to new generations.
  • More Santa Movies 14 of 16
    More Santa Movies
    Fred Claus is another recent movie that has helped to modernize the story of Santa.
  • Santa Today 15 of 16
    Santa Today
    From a Saint who lived thousands of years ago to the man in red and white with a bag full of toys, I wonder what the future holds for Santa Claus. We can track his progress on Christmas with NORAD's help so what's next? Holograms of Santa delivering toys beamed into living rooms? The sky is the limit.
  • Merry Christmas To All! 16 of 16
    Merry Christmas To All!
    And to all a good night.

 

You can find Monica Bielanko on her personal blog, The Girl Who.

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