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Santa Claus: The History Behind Christmas’s Commercialized Figure

By: Susanna Conway

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Photo by: Au Kirk 

Many of us are familiar with the jolly man in the fur-trimmed coat who lives at the north pole and delivers presents to the nice children on Christmas Eve, but not many of us know the origins of this popular figure. Santa Claus, also known as Kris Kringle or Saint Nick, originated from the stories of a Turkish monk born in the third century CE. Saint Nickolas, as he was known, was a generous man who devoted his life to helping the poor, the sick, and the needy. In one such story, Saint Nickolas placed gold into the stockings of a girl who couldn’t pay her dowry and would soon be sold into slavery or prostitution. Saint Nickolas was soon known throughout the Christian religion as the protector of children and sailors and became the subject of European stories and legends. 


Many European countries, most prominently Holland, began to celebrate his feast day on December 6th, and by the fifteenth century, Saint Nickolas was among the most popular saints in Europe. Holland was among the most devoted to Saint Nickolas, the saint of children, and referred to him as “Sinter Klaas”, the Dutch translation of Saint Nickolas. In addition, Dutch children would leave their shoes out for Saint Nickolas to fill with toys and candy, which inspired the modern-day idea of Christmas stockings. When Dutch migrants brought the popular holiday to the United States in the mid-eighteenth century, American observers adapted the figure, christening him “Santa Claus”. 


After becoming a popular Christmas figure in New York, due to his association with children, Santa Claus became the subject of Clement Clarke Moore’s “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” in 1824, adding physical descriptions and abilities to the character. Moore described the figure as being jolly and riding across the night sky on Christmas Eve with his eight reindeer to deliver presents to deserving children. By the mid-1800s, Santa Claus had become the main face of Christmas, being featured in commercial Christmas shopping and portrayed in community malls. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast constructed an image of Santa Claus for an edition of Harper's Weekly, giving the figure the now-noticeable red coat with fur trimmings, a workshop full of elves in the North Pole, and his wife, Mrs. Claus. 


Commercialization has greatly affected the overall appeal of Santa Claus, and recent years have altered the religious symbol of Saint Nickolas into a jolly old man flying across the sky with presents and reindeer. Although greatly differing from the original stories of Saint Nickolas, today’s Santa Claus remains one of the top attractions of Christmas, and stories of his jolliness and charm continue to delight children across the globe. 

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