The Ancient Origins of Santa Claus

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The Ancient Origins of Santa Claus

Every year millions of children around the world anxiously wait for the arrival of Santa Claus. Parents tell stories of the man with the white beard,

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Every year millions of children around the world anxiously wait for the arrival of Santa Claus. Parents tell stories of the man with the white beard, red coat, and polished boots who travels the world with his reindeer bearing gifts for all those who were well-behaved. Perhaps one day, parents will also tell the story of the real Santa Claus – a man who dedicated his life to charity and gift-giving.

The Real Santa Claus

The real story of Santa Claus begins with Saint Nicholas (270 – 343 AD), who was born in the village of Patara, an area which was once Greek but is now part of Turkey. He was born to wealthy parents, who died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.

One account of Nicholas says that he presented three impoverished daughters with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. On three different occasions, the bags of gold providing the dowries appeared in their home. They had been tossed through an open window and are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.

Portrait of Saint Nicholas. Source: BigStockPhoto

Gift Giving Customs Linked to Saint Nicholas

Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. He became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need and his love for children. Thus began the tradition of gift-giving in honor of Saint Nicholas, whose modern name Santa Claus, comes from the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’.

Saint Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 AD and on the eve of his death children were bestowed gifts in his honor. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving in many countries in Europe. For example, in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is said to arrive on a steamboat or horse from Spain. On the night of December 5th, Dutch children traditionally put their shoes on the hearth, or the central heating duct, hoping that he will fill them with sweet rewards rather than a reprimand for any poor behavior during the year .

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is said to arrive on a steamboat or horse from Spain. ( georgpfluegl /Adobe Stock)

In other countries, the day of gifts was moved to December 24th and 25th, in the course of the Reformation and its opposition to the veneration of saints. But Saint Nicholas’ concern for children helped him maintain his link to the gift-giving tradition that was moved to Christmas.

Where is Saint Nicholas’ Tomb?

Nicholas’ tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. So in 1087, most of his bones were moved to Bari in Italy, where they remain to this day. A basilica was constructed the same year to store his remains and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout.

An anatomy professor from the University of Bari who catalogued, measured, and photographed the saint’s remains in 1957 tried to sketch what Nicholas would have looked like if soft tissues were present on the skull. In 2004, a facial reconstruction anthropologist attempted to create a likeness of the famous saint by applying the latest computer diagnostic techniques to the data gathered in 1957. The results can be viewed here.

Fresco of Saint Nicholas. Source: BigStockPhoto

In 2017, Turkish archaeologists claimed St Nicholas’ remains are not in Bari, but located in the church of Saint Nicholas in Demre. They discovered another sarcophagus dating to the fourth century in the church, which they claim contains the saint.

Other historians suggest that the whole story of the movement of the saint’s bones was just a way to “advertise a new pilgrimage center in the 11th century.” To date, “nothing in the shrine at Bari proves that the bones inside belong to the fourth-century Bishop Nicholas,” according to Professor of History & Religion, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Lisa Bitel.

How Old is the Popular Santa Claus Image?

Several of the modern ideas of Santa Claus have been attributed to the poem by Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”), which appeared in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823.

Many of Santa’s modern attributes are established in this poem, such as riding in a sleigh that lands on the roof, entering through the chimney, and having a bag full of toys. St. Nicholas is described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”, in spite of which the “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer” still indicate that he is physically diminutive.

The reindeer were also named in this poem: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixem. Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen.

Since then, the image of Santa Claus has been popularized through television, movies, and children’s story books. While some dislike the idea of gift-giving at Christmas, believing that the lavish celebrations are not in line with their faith, or that Santa has become a symbol of materialism, others believe that it continues to honor the life and deeds of Saint Nicholas, an individual beloved and revered as a protector and helper of those in need.

Top Image: There was a real man who inspired the Santa Claus story. Source: Andrey Kiselev /Adobe Stock

By Joanna Gillan

Updated on December 24, 2020.