Most everyone can tell you about Santa Claus — the white beard and red suit, flying reindeer and elves at the North Pole, sliding down chimneys and leaving presents while eating cookies and drinking milk.
But how did all of these details about Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas/Kris Kringle/Father Christmas all come to be? When did children first start believing in him, and were the legends and traditions always as they are now? For that matter, does everyone in the world believe in the same Santa Claus? Let's find out...
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A medieval fresco depicting Saint Nicholas from the Boyana Church, near Sofia, Bulgaria
- St. Nicholas was a real man. Born around the year 280 A.D., St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a town in what is now Turkey.
- Legend has it that St. Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.
- It's said that St. Nicholas saved three sisters from being sold into slavery by providing them a dowry so they could be married.
- St. Nicholas once tossed gold coins through an open window, and they landed in a stocking drying by the fire. Sound familiar?
- 1700 years ago, kids would hang stockings or leave their shoes out in hopes that St. Nicholas would visit and give them coins.
- Bishop Nicholas of Myra died on December 6, 343 AD, and within a century, he was canonized by the Church as Saint Nicholas.
- St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children. He is also the patron saint of sailors who say "May St. Nicholas hold the tiller."
- After his canonization, Dec. 6 became known as St. Nicholas Day, a celebration of gift-giving throughout the Christian world.
Odin riding atop his 8-legged horse Sleipnir
- As time went by, St. Nicholas Day merged with the Christmas holiday, since the two holidays occurred so close together.
- In some parts of Europe, St. Nicholas merged with the pagan god Odin, celebrated during the Germanic winter holiday of Yule.
- According to legend, Odin would lead a hunting party at Yule, riding across the sky on an 8-legged horse. 8 legs? 8 reindeer?
- Yule tradition had kids fill their boots with carrots, straw, or sugar for Odin's flying horse and leave them by the chimney.
- During Yule, in appreciation for leaving food for his flying horse, Sleipnir, Odin would reward children with gifts and candy.
There are many visualizations of the Christkindl (Christ Child/Children).
- St. Nicholas faded during the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. Only the Dutch still celebrated him.
- During the Reformation, Protestants changed the gift-giver to the Christ Child and moved presents from Dec. 6 to Christmas Eve.
- In German, the word for Christ Child (the giver of gifts on Christmas Eve) is Christkindl. The name Kris Kringle comes from it.
- Protestants and Puritans feared and resisted the revelry of Christmas. In 1659, Massachusetts colony actually banned Christmas!
- Most American colonies celebrated Christmas, but they kept the European tradition of the Christ Child, not Saint Nicholas.
The Dutch Sinterklaas and his helper Zwarte Piet
- Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (New York) brought along the tradition of Sint Nikolaas (St. Nicholas) or Sinterklaas for short.
- The Dutch Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) has a helper known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). They live in Spain (not the North Pole).
- The Dutch Sinterklaas is an elderly, serious man with white hair & a long beard. He wears bishop's clothes and carries a staff.
- The Dutch Sinterklaas rides a grey flying horse over rooftops, dropping presents down the chimneys of well-behaved children.
- After the American Revolution, New Yorkers celebrated their Dutch roots and revived the feast of St Nicholas and his legend.
One of the early covers of the famous poem "Twas The Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clarke Moore
- The Anglicizing of the name "Sinterklaas" appeared by 1773, when a New York City newspaper reported on the Dutch "Santa Claus."
- Santa Claus became prominent in America in 1809 with the publication of author Washington Irving's book "A History of New York."
- Washington Irving's satirical 1809 book "A History of New York" listed Santa Claus as the patron saint of New York.
- Santa first became "fat" when author Washington Irving described him as portly and smoking a pipe, instead of as a lanky bishop.
- Irving's 1809 "A History of New York" was the first-ever mention of Santa sliding down a chimney (rather than dropping presents).
- In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a 56-line Christmas poem entitled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." A legend began.
- Moore wrote his Christmas poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" for his three daughters. It was first published anonymously in 1823.
A portion of Thomas Nast's first Santa Claus drawing from 1863 with Santa dressed in the stars and stripes
- Clement Moore was a professor of Oriental & Greek Literature and feared his "silly" Christmas poem might sully his reputation.
- The 1822 poem "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Moore became known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas."
- The poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas" marked the first time Santa's eight reindeer were ever mentioned...and given names.
- Two reindeer were originally named Dunder & Blixem (old Dutch words for thunder & lightning). They later became Donner & Blitzen.
- The wife of Santa Claus is first mentioned in the short story "A Christmas Legend" by James Rees in 1849.
- In the 1800s, Santa wore all sorts of things: blue 3-cornered hat, broad-brimmed hat, red waistcoat, and even yellow stockings.
In this drawing by Thomas Nast, Santa is shown, for the first time, looking out at the world from the North Pole.
- In 1863, the cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of drawings in Harper's Weekly, based on "Twas The Night Before Christmas."
- Thomas Nast's cartoons in Harper's Weekly began defining the look of Santa Claus for Americans: flowing beard and fur garments.
- Thomas Nast's first drawing of Santa had him wearing white stars on a blue coat and red and white striped pants--very American.
- Around 1869, Santa turned up for the first time in a bright red suit with a white belt in one of Thomas Nast's cartoons.
- Thomas Nast was the first to depict Santa Claus working at the North Pole. Nast also was the first person to draw Mrs. Claus.
- Although Santa had worn many colors previously, beginning in the late 1800s, it became popular to depict Santa in a red suit.
An early Christmas card featuring Santa Claus drawn by Louis Prang around 1885.
- Louis Prang is known as the "father of the American Christmas card." He sold them first in England and then in America in 1874.
- The first Christmas card showing Santa Claus in a red suit appeared in 1885. It was printed by Louis Prang in Boston.
- Katherine Lee Bates' 1889 poem "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride" popularized Mrs. Claus ("Goody" is short for "Goodwife").
- The first department store Santa appeared in 1890 at The Boston Store in Brockton, MA, played by storeowner James Edgar.
- In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army began dressing up unemployed New York men in Santa Claus suits to solicit donations.
- In 1894, the U.S. Congress officially made Christmas a national holiday. Before that, employees didn't always get the day off.
The cover for the Christmas children's book written by the author of "The Wizard of Oz"
- "Is There a Santa Claus?" was an editorial in the New York Sun in 1897. The answer: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
- "Oz" children's author L. Frank Baum wrote "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus" in 1902, exploring Santa's mythical origins.
- The U.S. Post Office Santa letter answering effort began in 1912 out of the historic James Farley Post Office in New York.
- Coke wasn't the first drink company to use a red & white Santa. White Rock Beverages did it first in 1915 to sell mineral water.
- Having a Santa Claus set up to take pictures with children is a ritual that dates back at least to 1918.
- By 1927, Santa as a large, rosy-cheeked, jolly fellow with a white beard, pipe, and wearing a red suit was a common image.
This 1931 illustration by Haddon Sunblom was the first Coca Cola ad to feature Santa Claus.
- Coca Cola expanded the image of Santa with a far-reaching ad campaign that began in 1931 and ran every Christmas for 35 years.
- For nearly 35 years, Haddon Sundblom painted portraits of Santa Claus for Coca Cola ad campaigns that cemented his modern image.
- In 1937, Charles W. Howard, who played Santa Claus himself, established the oldest continuously-run such school in the world.
- Rudolph, the famous 9th reindeer with the glowing red nose, first appeared 100 years after his 8 counterparts, in a 1939 poem.
- Robert May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store, wrote the story of Rudolph to help increase holiday traffic.
- Montgomery Ward sold almost 2.5 million copies of Rudolph in 1939. Reissued in 1946, the book sold over 3.5 million copies.
The original cover for the book "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
- In 1949, one of Robert May's friends, Johnny Marks, wrote a short song based on the story of Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer.
- The song "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1949 and sold over two million copies.
- The story of Rudolph has been translated into 25 languages and was made into a television movie, narrated by Burl Ives, in 1964.
- The tradition of tracking Santa by radar began in 1955 with the printing of wrong number. Read more: http://tinyurl.com/ydlvgud
- Each year, the NORAD Tracks Santa website gets nearly 9 million visitors from more than 200 countries and territories globally.
- Canada's Post Office has a special postal code for letters to Santa. His address is: Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada, H0H 0H0
- In Britain and Australia, Santa Claus is sometimes given sherry and mince pies instead of cookies and milk.
- In Ireland, it is popular to give Santa Claus either Guinness or milk, along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
- Each Nordic country claims Santa's residence to be within their territory, including Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.
- Some countries cite Greenland as the traditional home of Father Christmas, while others use the Lapland Province of Finland.
- On December 23, 2008, Jason Kenney, one of Canada's ministers, formally awarded Canadian citizenship status to Santa Claus.
Early images of Father Christmas over the centuries featured him wearing green robes.
- In Kyrgyzstan, a mountain peak was named after Santa Claus, and 2008 was declared a national Year of Santa Claus in that country.
- For centuries, European countries had Father Christmas who didn't necessarily give gifts. Today, he & Santa have all but merged.
- Early versions of Father Christmas wore green robes, and he was the inspiration for Charles Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present.
- Father Christmas names — Papa Noel (Spanish), Pére Nöel (French), Papai Noel (Brazil), Pai Nata (Portugal), Babbo Natale (Italy).
- More Father Christmas names — Christmas Father (India), Kaghand Papik (Armenia), Moș Cräciun (Romania), and Noel Baba (Turkey).
- In Iceland, the 13 Yule Lads play practical jokes and then leave gifts in the shoes of good children. Bad kids get tomatoes.
- In Norway, Finland, and Sweden, gnome-like Tomte (or Nisse) give children gifts in person. (Usually parents dress up as Tomte.)
- Many countries still celebrate with the Christ Child (or Christkind), a cherubic blond child who gives gifts but is never seen.
- In some countries with German customs, Santa is accompanied by Belsnickel, a stern mountain-man who disciplines children.
In Alpine countries, the beast-like Krampus accompanies St. Nicholas before Christmas, scaring children into being good.
All around the world, different countries and cultures have their own unique legends of the person or people who give
gifts at Christmastime.
- In France, Pére Nöel resembles Santa, but instead of using reindeer, he rides a single donkey called Gui (Mistletoe in French).
- In Italy, a kind witch named Befana delivers gifts for good children on Jan. 5 (and gives coal to bad kids). She also sweeps up.
- In Slavic countries, gifts are given on New Year's Eve by Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) who rides a traditional horse-drawn sled.
- The Russian Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) is a white bearded sorcerer who wears red robes and travels with his granddaughter.
An Australian Christmas carol by Rolf Harris "Six White Boomers" has Santa using six white kangaroos instead of eight reindeer.