Santa Claus is a holiday tradition that has been embraced around the world. This jolly old elf in his red-and-white suit is featured in movies, books, TV shows, advertising and childhood dreams. But where did Santa Claus get his start?
According to The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Gerry Bowler, our current image of Santa Claus is only around 200 years old. Yet today's Santa has roots in much older Christmas traditions.
By the 12th century, stories were widely spread through Europe about Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Christian bishop from Asia Minor who was the patron saint of children. Traditions developed to give gifts to children on his feast day, December 6.
Christian reformers in the 16th century called for less emphasis on the saints, and many Protestant areas replaced Saint Nicholas the gift giver with either the Christ child or a secular version of a gift giver dressed in fur. German versions in the 17th and 18th centuries were commonly called Knecht Ruprecht, which means "Furry Nicholas," or Ru-Klaus, which is "Rough Nicholas."
During the late 1700s, Americans celebrated Christmas with boisterous all-night drinking and parties in the street. The holiday went through major revisions in the early 1800s, mostly to tone down the festivities and center more on family traditions. The idea of Santa Claus was a central theme of this change.
In 1809, Washington Irving wrote a mock chronicle called "Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York" that helped popularize the idea of Santa. Part of this work talked about the Dutch-American concept of Sinterklass, who had many of the traits of modern-day Santa Claus, including a flying horse-pulled wagon and delivery of gifts down the chimney.
Santa Claus in literature
Santa Claus became a rich subject for authors, particularly in children's literature. His mythology gained more detail through poems and letters, such as Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas," which is now commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas." This poem was published in 1823 and has been a beloved part of Christmas mythology ever since.
Artists also helped give Santa Claus his distinctive image. During the American Civil War, Thomas Nast's illustrations of Santa Claus combined patriotism with family holiday traditions. Subsequent artists like Norman Rockwell and Haddon Sundblom refined Santa into the picture we see today.
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