How did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus?

nicholas, st nicholas day, christmas

DECEMBER 25, 2007

A friend from Germany once asked me how St. Nicholas (ascetic Bishop of the early church in Asia Minor, feast day Dec. 6th, known as the patron saint and protector of children) became Santa Claus (jolly old elf with red suit, a big round tummy and a chuckling laugh, flying the world on Dec. 25th with 8 tiny reindeer, at least if 9 if NORAD’s reports are to be believed).

St. Nicholas Day

In Germany, gifts are apparently left under the Christmas tree by the Christ Child on Christmas Eve, but the long-robed St. Nicholas (with his assistant Krampus) has a separate role at the beginning of the Christmas season, leaving small gifts in children’s shoes, while the Wise Men end the Christmas celebrations on January 6th–just one month from St. Nicholas’ day.

So in Germany, between December 6th and January 6th there are three completely separate occasions when good children can receive gifts. Extra motivation for all good German Kinder, I am sure!

Santa Claus

decorative santa claus and christmas trees at home
Photo by Laura James on

Santa Claus, with his red suit trimmed with white fur, his jolly laugh, and his workshop of scampering elves, is a uniquely American character, rising out of a uniquely American history.

Simply put, the earliest English settlers who came to the New World and settled in the area we call New England did not celebrate Christmas. They were stern, pious Puritans who scorned the traditional English Christmas–feasting and caroling and wassailing and other such celebratory actions were just pagan nonsense, dressed up in a highly suspect Christian guise. As Puritans, they wanted to purify their version of the English Protestant church: no carved gargoyles on the church buildings, no incense burning on the altar during prayers, no gold-embroidered vestments worn by their preachers. And especially no parties at Christmas. If it was one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar, then surely Christians ought to be in the church, on their knees, praying and repenting of their sins, rather than piling up new ones.

At least that was the thinking of the first European settlers of New England. And so celebrating Christmas was formally outlawed in Massachusetts (the oldest New England colony) from 1689 until 1856. By the time the girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women were coming down to breakfast to find Christmas presents on their breakfast table, Christmas celebrations had been legal for less than a generation in the author’s home state.

Of course, the Puritans and their descendants did not all stay in Massachusetts. The inexorable pull of the west meant that some of them eventually drifted into New York–the colony that had once been Dutch. And they began bumping into Dutch Christmas customs: gingerbread cookies and Sinter Klaas, among others.

The descendants of the Puritans had no remnants of “Father Christmas” in their handed-down English traditions. Christmas was for them a day of prayer, and Saint Nicholas/Sinter Klaas/Santa Claus came to them as a tradition of the newly-amalgamated American nation, a tradition first borrowed from Dutch origins and put into standard American form in 1823 (with numerous reprintings thereafter) in the poem called “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, who had been educated at New York’s Columbia University. By 1870, Moore’s St. Nicholas had been transmuted into the department-store Santa Claus at Macy’s, a flagship Manhattan store both then and now.

The change from Sinter Klaas to Santa Claus–from a Dutch celebration of an ancient saint’s feast day to an American celebration of Christmas–happened in the 19th century, but it took the age of television in the 20th century for our own American Santa Claus to conquer the world, one child at a time…

I suppose this proves that festivities to brighten the darkest time of the year have a certain attraction for us all, even the descendants of Puritans.

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