Children all over the world eagerly visit Santa Claus in shopping malls, write letters to the North Pole, bake cookies on Christmas Eve, and wake up early to open presents from jolly old Saint Nick. There are many songs about him and he’s found throughout Christmas imagery.
But why? How did Santa become such a big part of our holidays?
The History of Santa Claus
During the year 280 AD in Asia Minor, a nobleman named Nicholas was born. He became a Christian priest who dedicated his life to the poor, needy, and sick. Even though he never married or had children of his own, he loved kids and would travel around the country giving gifts to them. Nicholas didn’t want them to know who he was, so he would sneak them into the children’s houses late at night, under the cover of darkness. Because of this, their parents would tell them to go to sleep early or he wouldn’t come.
There are endless stories about the charity of Saint Nicholas, many of which are legendary. One of the most popular is the story about a poor man whose wife died, leaving him alone with three daughters. They were very poor and could not afford a dowry, so St. Nick snuck into their home and left gold in the stockings that were hanging up to dry. This is actually where the idea of putting gifts in stockings came from!
St. Nicholas made his way into America around 1774 when Dutch families gathered to honor the anniversary of his death, December 6th, which is still a day celebrated in the Netherlands.
In 1809, the famous Washington Irving referred to St. Nicholas as the Patron Saint of New York. He loved the idea of Santa and worked tirelessly to make him an American symbol of family and togetherness. In fact, Irving is often credited with “creating” Christmas in America! He wrote “A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty”, a satirical piece, part of which outlined traditions and customs of Santa that we hold dear today – sliding down the chimney to deliver gifts, the jolly, rosy-cheeked character, etc.
It’s important to note that the American image of Santa differs from the Dutch version of Santa quite a bit. He’s round instead of thin, wears furs instead of Bishop robes, and has flying reindeer. Thomas Nast’s illustrations for Harper’s Illustrated Weekly in 1863 (which have become iconic) helped establish this type of imagery.
In the early 1890’s, the Salvation Army needed money to pay for the Christmas meals they provided to needy families. So they dressed unemployed men in suits designed to look like Santa Claus and sent them into the streets of New York to ask for donations. Of course, the Salvation Army has continued to do this, ringing bells on street corners each and every year.
Fun Fact: The name “Santa Claus” descended from the Dutch Name for him – “Sinter Klaas”, a shortened version of “St. Nicholas” in Dutch.
The Commercialization of Santa Claus
Of course, Santa is more than just the image of Christmas – he’s also a huge part of holiday marketing and sales for businesses each year.
In 1890, a man named James Edgar went to Boston and had a Santa costume made just for him. He owned a dry goods store and appeared in his storefront in full costume a few weeks before Christmas. This was the very first time that children got to really “meet” Santa and they came from all over the country! By 1891, more and more department stores featured Santa around the holidays and it became an institution.
While Macy’s claims to have had the first department store Santa, many critics insist that Edgar was the first true Santa, arguing for the type of outfit (traditional red suite and hat) and the authenticity of the character.
Coca-Cola started using Santa in their print ads in the 1920’s. Their most famous ad was printed in 1930, when artist Fred Mizen painted a department-store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. People loved the ads so much that if anything ever changed with the image of Santa (like a missing wedding ring or backwards belt), they would write into Coke asking questions.
Fun Fact: In order to deliver presents to all the children in the world on Christmas Eve, Santa would have to travel 218 million miles, an average of 1,280 miles per second.
The Story Behind Santa Traditions
But what about all the little details that make Santa Claus, well, the St. Nick that we know and love today?
Leaving cookies and milk – Children all over the world follow the tradition of leaving something for Santa in exchange for gifts. In America, we leave cookies and milk. In France, children leave a carrot or treat for Père Noël‘s donkey. In Puerto Rico, they leave cut grass for the wise men’s camels. All of these traditions ultimately came from the idea of Saint Nicholas leaving gold in the stockings of those three poor little girls.
Reindeer – Saint Nicholas himself was said to ride a white horse to deliver gifts. But the eight reindeer were mentioned and named for the first time in “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, also known as “The Night Before Christmas”. Rudolph wasn’t mentioned until 1939, when a Montgomery Ward copyrighter by the name of Robert L. May developed him for a coloring book, based on the idea of the Ugly Duckling. The famous song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” made the character famous.
Sliding down the chimney – This idea was developed out of convenience because, well, how else was Santa supposed to get into houses?
The North Pole – This idea came after several expeditions to the North Pole gained worldwide attention. Snow was already tied to Christmas and shouldn’t Santa live somewhere that it snows all year long? So he came to live at the North Pole.
Letters to Santa – Letters actually started in the early 19th century TO children from Santa, encouraging them to behave. Thomas Nast’s Christmas drawings were the first time we saw the idea of letters being delivered to Santa from children.
Elves – Santa first became associated with Elves in “The Night Before Christmas” where he was referred to as “a jolly old elf” and the idea of elves working for Santa continued to develop through poems published in Harper’s Weekly.
Fun Fact: The most popular cookies to leave out for Santa are chocolate chip cookies and Oreos.