Santa Then and Now

At Christmastime some Christian families choose to do Santa, and some do not. Regardless, of whether the big man visits your house, its undeniable that he is a major character at Christmastime in American Culture.

In reality, we know much less about him than his legacy suggests, regardless, his story is larger than life. In this post, I will be sharing the process of how Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus and how Santa Claus relates to Christ.

The story begins in Turkey—Yes Turkey (then called Asia Minor) where Nicholas was born around AD 280 in Patara, Lycia. Tradition teaches that his Parents died when he was young and left him a sizable inheritance. Legend states that Nicholas used his inheritance to help the poor and sick.

As an adult, Nicholas became the Bishop of the church in Myra (in the same area of modern-day Turkey). We do not know much about his life and/or ministry there save for a few stories that may or may not be true.


The most famous story is one where a poor man had no money to pay a dowry for his three daughters to get married and so he began to consider having them go into prostitution. When Nicholas heard of this, he put gold in a sock and at night secretly dropped it in through an open window in the home. Some versions suggest he simply put the sock of gold in the man’s garden. Either way, when it came time for the second daughter to marry, Nicholas dropped another sock of gold into his possession. When it came time for the third to marry, Nicholas did the same thing again, but this time the poor farmer saw him and thanked him for his generosity.

A second well-known story is a bit different, in it an inn keeper had murdered three boys. He has just dismembered them and stuffed them in barrels when the Bishop entered the place. Sensing the crime, he resurrected the boys.

As a result of these stories, Nicholas became known as a Patron Saint of children and gift giving.

It is widely believed that Nicholas was imprisoned for his faith in AD 303 during the Roman persecution. It is also believed that he was released when Constantine came into power in AD 313. Nicholas is mentioned by at least one author as someone who attended the first church Council in Nicea in 325. This council was held in Turkey in the province of Bithynia. His name appears as the 151st attendee of some 300 total Bishops at the council.

One story concerning his time at the council claims that he was a strong opponent of the Arians (who were teaching that Jesus was not fully God or eternal) and that he even slapped on of these men in the face. As a result of his behavior it is said that he was removed from office as a Bishop but that later was restored by Christ. While it is likely that he attended the council, it is not likely that these events occurred. They are not mentioned by any of the writers at the council and the specific story appears later in history. However, it is noted in writings that he worked to keep Arian teachings out of the churches in Myra.

It is believed that Nicholas died on December 6, 343. As a result, a feast was celebrated on that day for many years until the protestant Reformation. Protestants do not venerate saints, and so after the Reformation many of the stories of Saint Nicholas morphed into the larger celebration of the Christmas Season.

Between AD 1200 and 1500 Nicholas was known as the bringer of gifts. But he brought gifts on December 6.

After the Reformation some groups tried to create traditions where baby Jesus would bring the gifts, but since an infant has little ability to carry gifts and is not very scary, he was often given a helper or side-kick. Some of these sidekicks were called Ru-Klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas) and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas). These characters expected children to behave or be whipped or kidnapped for their bad behavior. The name of this baby Jesus that gave gifts was Christkind or “Kris Kringle.”

While many groups gave up on Saint Nicholas after the 1500s, the Dutch continued to celebrate his Feast Day on December 6.

When the Dutch migrated to America in the 1700s they brough their traditions with them. Their children would put their shoes out the night before to see what Sinterklaas or “Santa Claus” had left them the next morning.

However, in New England the feast on December 6 was shunned by many as a wild outdoor party filled with alcohol. Gifts ceased to be given and Santa as the gift bringer had lost his appeal.

This all changed in the 1800s thanks to a few poets and cartoonists.

In 1809 Washington Irving portrays Santa Claus as a pipe-smoking man who soars over the rooftops in a flying wagon giving presents to good girls and boys.

In 1821 a poem called “The Children’s Friend” associated him with Christmas. This is considered the first appearance of Santa as he is known today. In this poem his wagon is pulled by one reindeer.

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Vision from St. Nicholas.” Today it has been retitled “The Night Before Christmas.” This poem calls Santa plump and jolly. It retains the pipe-smoking and adds to the number of reindeer making it 8 (and giving them all names). Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer?

Rudolf was created by Robert May in 1939 as an ad for Montgomery Ward.

  • Fun Fact: I learned from one website that only female reindeer keep their antlers in the winter, so depicting Santa’s reindeer with antlers suggests that they are all girls.

In 1879 Thomas Nast published pictures of Saint Nicholas that for the first time had him living in the North Pole. Previously traditions had him living in Turkey, Spain, and Holland. In Finland the children say he lives in Lapland in the northern part of their country.

After Santa became popular in the United States, this new version of him re-migrated back to Europe. In France his name was changed to Pere Noel or Father Christmas as he was called in Great Britain. He was banned in the Soviet Union for a time, but after the fall in 1989 he has become popular in those lands once again.

Remember that story about the gold in the socks for the poor farmer’s daughters. From that story came the tradition of hanging stockings. Also, in many cultures a tangerine is placed in the bottom of the stocking as symbolic of the gold.

Throughout history, Santa has been depicted wearing many colors such as red, green, blue, and brown. Some claim that Coca-Cola was the first to change his suit to red, but that is actually just an urban legend.

So how does Santa relate to Christ?

Christ came to the earth as a gift for humanity. Christ lived a life concerned for the poor, sick, orphaned, widowed, etc. He calls us to give of our excess to his kingdom. Saint Nicholas, is a reminder of the value of giving to the less fortunate. He reminds us through his gifts of the gift of Jesus. And while he is now attributed some deific qualities like knowing who is naughty and nice, even that list is a reminder that we all desire to have our names in the Lambs book of life. Not because we have earned our salvation, but because like Nicholas provided a dowry for the farmer’s daughters, so too Christ has paid the price of our redemption.

Note: At some point the original church in Myra was destroyed. The Bones of Saint Nicholas were moved and then in the 1200s stolen and moved to Bari. At various points after that his bones were sent as relics to a number of churches. Today there are over 400 churches that have Nicholas as the patron saint. Some of the bones have been tested and show to be from the right time period and area of Turkey. Regardless, we cannot know for sure if they are his actual bones. But if they are, then this site that has done facial reconstruction on them and gives us a very interesting picture of what the real Saint Nicholas may have looked like: After Mary, Nicholas is the most commonly portrayed Saint in the world.

Here is another fun site with many other Christmas Traditions explained: