The True Story of Santa Claus

We all know that Santa Claus has a red suit, nine reindeer and a job bringing toys to children on Christmas Eve. But how did we get to this modern vision of Santa Claus? Was there ever a real Santa? The answers lie in both recent and ancient history.

Saint Nicholas
The real man behind Santa Claus is Nicholas of Myra, a Turkish bishop who lived in the fourth century. Nicholas was generous with his wealth and was particularly kind to children.

One story involving Nicholas provides the origin for Santa Claus' late-night deliveries. Among Nicholas' parishoners was a poor man with three daughters. Having no money for a dowry, the man worried that his daughters would never marry. Nicholas wanted to help, but he didn't want to embarass the man with a public act of charity. In the middle of the night, Nicholas visited the man's house and threw three purses filled with gold coins, one for each daughter, through the window.

After his death, Nicholas was named the Patron Saint of Children. Like the other Christian saints, a feast day was set aside to honor him, taking place each year on December 6. In the Netherlands, a tradition of celebrating on December 5 became common. A highlight of these celebrations was a visit from Sinterklass (a slang Dutch name for Saint Nicholas), who was dressed in the traditional robes of a bishop. The Dutch Sinterklass lives in Spain and arrives each year on December 5 on a large, white horse.

Santa Claus
Dutch immigrants brought the Sinterklass and Feast of Saint Nicholas traditions to New Amsterdam (now New York) in the 1700s. The Dutch name of Sinterklass eventually gave way to a rough American translation, Santa Claus.

American author Clement C. Moore drew on those traditions to create his famous poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," in 1823. Moore adds several elements to the Santa story, including the sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and Santa's ability to travel up and down chimneys.

Our modern image of Santa is shaped by two artists. Thomas Nast adorned the Christmas issues of Harper's magazine with his version of Santa, a rotund fellow dressed in fur coats rather than Sinterklass' bishop robes. Nast added several elements to the Santa story, including his home at the North Pole, his workshop full of elves and his list of naughty and nice children.

Illustrator Haddon Sundblom further refined Santa's look in a 1931 magazine advertisement for Coca-Cola. Prior to Sundblom's work, artists had never settled on Santa's height. Even Thomas Nast portrayed Santa as a tiny man; Clement Moore described Santa as an elf. Sundblom's Santa was a tall, rotund man full of life, an image of Santa that we still hold today.

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