Before he was coming down chimneys, adorned in his iconic red suit and black boots to deliver toys to all of the deserving children, St. Nicholas was known as the “protector of children and sailors.” The legend of St. Nicholas began in the third century when the Turkish monk gave away his inherited wealth to travel the countryside helping the poor and sick. It wasn’t until nearly 16 centuries later that this monk occupied children’s Christmas dreams with his eight reindeer in tow.
The saint was originally celebrated in Europe on the anniversary of his death, Dec. 6, with toasts, celebrations and gifts placed in shoes left on windowsills, beside beds and alongside hearths. However, the dim view of saints that came with the Protestant Reformation caused St. Nicholas’ popularity to decline. But because the common people loved him so, he survived long enough for the tale of “Sinter Klaas,” the saint’s Dutch name which has evolved into Santa Claus, to accompany Europeans traveling to the New World.
The first tales of St. Nicholas in America date back to the end of the 18th century when reports of Dutch families gathering to honor his life appeared in a New York newspaper. In 1804, John Pintard promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and the city at the annual meeting of the New York Historical Society. Five years later, the first references to jolly St. Nicholas rewarding good children with presents were published in Washington Irving’s book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, the first notable work of imagination in the United States. In 1810, Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to be the first to depict the now traditional image of St. Nicholas in honor of the Society’s first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner.
The modern day Santa was further shaped by an anonymously published book in 1821, The Children’s Friend, in which St. Nicholas appeared on Christmas Eve instead of Dec.6. This book came during a time in which there was a felt need to protect, shelter, train and educate children, leading to St. Nicholas’s didactic rewards to the well behaved or punishments to the ill mannered. Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1822 publication of An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas also known as The Night Before Christmas soon followed, which is largely credited with the modern image of a jolly, stout Santa and his supernatural ability to ascend chimneys across the world in one night. Moore, embarrassed by the frivolous nature of his writings for his children, had no intention of adding to Santa’s wonder, but ended up creating an immediately popular icon.
At a time when gift giving became associated with the Christmas holiday, stores began advertising Christmas shopping and newspapers ran sections dedicated to holiday advertisements. Santa Claus became the endorsement for many consumer products, and shopping malls began having appearances of a real life Santas, bringing in thousands of children and parents to get a peek of the magic. Since the early 1890s, The Salvation Army also employed Santa’s iconic nature to solicit donations to feed needy families, beginning their tradition of Santa’s ringing bells on the streets of New York City. Santa Claus’s wide commercial success in North America was soon transported around the world.
Although he evolved into a secular figure, Santa went hand-in-hand with the religious holiday, promoting good behavior and even helped return Christmas observance to churches. The new Santa Claus tradition, invented with the help of Pintard, Irving and Moore, was welcomed by the nation with the custom of a cozy, domestic Christmas — the excitement and wonder he brings to the holiday season continues to shine as he dashes above our sleeping heads from year to year.