I was surprised to discover that he originated in the Middle East. The original Santa Claus was St. Nicholas, an early Christian bishop who was born in 270, in what is now Turkey. His parents died when he was young, leaving him a fortune. After he became bishop of Myra, he gave away his riches, freely but anonymously. In perhaps his best-known act of kindness, he secretly tossed bags of gold through a poor family’s window, to provide dowries so the household’s three daughters could find husbands instead of being sold into slavery. At least one of the bags landed in a stocking hung up to dry by the fireplace, which is why children still hang up stockings on Christmas Eve to be filled with gifts.
Despite his efforts at anonymity, Nicholas soon became famous for his kindness and generosity—especially toward the young. When he died, on Dec. 6, 343, he was declared a saint by popular demand. Early admirers, mainly children, celebrated the anniversary of his passing by leaving out gifts for his white horse before they went to bed on Dec. 5. When they woke up, they were rewarded with sweets that the kindly saint had left behind.
Sailors carried stories about St. Nicholas over the Mediterranean Sea to distant lands. In 1087, an expedition set out from Italy to find the saint’s bones and bring them back to be enshrined in a church in a town called Bari, where they rest to this day. Two centuries later, crusaders on their way back from the Holy Land visited Bari. They returned to homes all over Europe telling tales of the life and miracles of St. Nicholas.
Initially, Nicholas had nothing to do with Christmas. For centuries, his life was celebrated on Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death and his official Roman Catholic feast day. But after the Reformation, the Protestants said that Christmas celebrations, which included pagan traditions of exchanging gifts and raucous merrymaking, exhibited “an extraeme forgetfulnesse of Christ, giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights.” The English Parliament banned Christmas observances in 1644, and the Puritans in Massachusetts did the same. Christmas devotees kept the holiday alive by celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas instead, and over time, the two celebrations merged.
St. Nick became Santa in America. Early Dutch settlers of New York called him Sint Herr Nikolaas, later shortened to Sinterklaas. The name morphed into Santa Claus over the 17th and 18th centuries. He was often depicted as a gaunt old-timer, like the English Father Christmas, who is believed to have been modeled after a pagan spirit who wore holly sprigs in his white hair. The American Santa wore traditional bishop’s garb—a pointed hat, or miter, and a staff hooked at the top like a shepherd’s crook (hence the shape of the peppermint candy canes that we have at Christmas).
After the Puritans tried to do away with St. Nick he made a come back in the early 19th century. A small number of influential New Yorkers declared Nicholas the patron saint of their city. In 1809, Washington Irving wrote a history of New York in which he introduced “Sinter Klaas” to America as a kindly saint who arrived at people’s homes on horseback on the eve of his feast day.
The image of St. Nick as “a jolly old elf” towed around by flying reindeer really began taking shape in 1822, with the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”—also known by its opening line, “’Twas the night before Christmas.” It was written by Clement Moore (a biblical studies professor) for his children. Forty years later, political cartoonist Thomas Nast refined Santa’s image with a series of drawings in Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s Santa dropped the bishop’s garb, and wore instead a brown coat trimmed with white fur. He also got a new address: Nast depicted St. Nick sitting on a box marked “Christmas box 1882, St. Nicholas, North Pole.”
Kriss Kringle is another foreign Christmas character whose name was adjusted by Americans. German immigrants taught their children that it wasn’t St. Nicholas who brought them gifts, but the Christ child, or Christkindl. The child was often accompanied by an elfin helper, known in some places as Pelznickel, or “Nicholas with fur.” Adults in the German communities of Pennsylvania, where the tradition was strong, dressed up as Pelznickel by donning furry disguises and false beards. This memorable character visited before bedtime, whereas Christkindl only arrived to leave gifts while the children were sleeping. Since the recipients never saw their real benefactor, Kriss Kringle (as the name came to be pronounced) became confused with his whiskery assistant—and eventually with the gift-bearing Santa Claus.