These days, images of Santa Claus usually show a jolly rotund fellow wearing a red suit, a fur-trimmed hat and black boots. This image became popular in the 19th century, due largely to political cartoonist Thomas Nast and “The Night Before Christmas” author Clement C. Moore. But behind this red-suited caricature we know so well today is a real man who lived in the third century.
Saint Nicholas was born around 280 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 children. He was soon known as a protector of children and sailors.
He died December 6, 343 AD, and the anniversary of his death became Saint Nicholas Day, a day for feasting and celebrating.
The legend of Saint Nicholas was brought to the New World by Dutch setttlers. 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.
He received another boost a few years later when Washington Irving joined the society and published a work called Knickerbocker’s History of New York on Saint Nicholas Day. The work contained numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character.
But it was Clement Clark Moore’s poem, originally titled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” but now better known as “The Night Before Christmas,” that cemented Saint 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 appeared in print a year later, in the Troy, New York Sentinel newspaper.
Political cartoonist Thomas Nast helped popularize the image Moore created. In 1863 he began drawing a series of annual cartoons for Harper’s Weekly that were 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 1890s, the image of Santa in a red suit and hat was so common that the Salvation Army began dressing men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations for the Christmas meals they provided for the needy. Later, other artists such as Norman Rockwell continued to popularize the image of Santa Claus as a bearded fat fellow in a red suit.
In 1931, Coca-Cola began using Santa in their advertisements and the rest, as they say, is history. Santa is now a common centerpiece of Christmas advertising. Although he still retains some small semblance to the Saint Nicholas of history who gave gifts to the needy, his transformation from an actual religious figure to a mythical secular figure has been otherwise complete.