Santa Claus: Origins and Traditions
It’s easy to think that Santa Claus has been around forever, with his big belly and red robe and sleigh full of gifts and reindeer.
Not so! There’s quite a history behind the modern Santa Claus.
Are your kids past the age where they still believe he comes down the chimney (mine were about six years old)? If they are, then there’s no spoiler alert needed and it’s fun to learn about the “jolly old elf’s” origins and also about different versions of Santa and Christmas around the world.
The Story of Saint Nicholas
The legend of Santa Claus begins with a Christian monk named Nicholas who was born around 280 A.D. in what is now Turkey. Nicholas was from a rich family but gave away all he had to help the poor and sick. He once saved three sisters who were going to be sold as slaves by providing them with a dowry so they could be married.
Nicholas was revered throughout his long life, and the legend of his generosity and kindness grew over time. Two hundred years after he died, a church was built in his honor in Constantinople, then the center of the Holy Roman Empire (now Istanbul). It’s unknown exactly when he was proclaimed a saint, but for well over a thousand years he’s been known as Saint Nicholas.
December 6: St. Nicholas Day
As St. Nicholas grew more popular, he also became known as the protector of children and sailors. For hundreds of years, the anniversary of his death, December 6, has been (and still is) celebrated as a feast day, and a lucky day to get married or purchase something of great value.
He actually became the most popular saint in Europe during the Renaissance, particularly among the Dutch who called him Sinter Klaas, a nickname for his Dutch name of Sint Nikolaas. Because the Dutch colonized much of New York before the American Revolution and brought their traditions with them, it’s easy to see how the name Sinter Klaas became “Americanized” as Santa Claus by the late 1700s.
Yet, St. Nicholas or Santa Claus wasn’t connected the way it is today with Christmas Eve gift-giving.
But Wait, What About Kriss Kringle?
As many of you know, people may call Santa Claus “Kriss Kringle,” a name popularized by a famous movie from the 1930s called Miracle on 34th Street, about a man of that name who plays Macy’s Santa. But the origin of the name goes back much further.
In the 1500s, during the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther wanted to discourage the figure of St. Nicholas (he believed praying to any Saint was against Scripture). Luther and his followers introduced the idea that the “Christkind” (German for “Christ-child”) would secretly come on Christmas Eve to bring presents to all good children. Christkind was modified to Kriss Kringle in the 1840s and became a popular nickname in some countries for Santa Claus.
It’s not hard to see how the Protestant tradition of gift-giving on Christmas Eve would come together with the old and generous figure of Saint Nick. But it still took a while for our version to be born.
The Modern Santa Claus Takes Form
Two New Yorkers in the 19th century had much to do with how we think of Santa Claus. In 1822, a minister named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a delightful poem for his daughters, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” We know it today as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Though some of his ideas were borrowed from folklore, he put it all together in what became a hugely popular poem. Forever after, we can’t imagine a Santa Claus who doesn’t fly in a sleigh with eight reindeer or magically come down chimneys with his bag of gifts.
Even so, Santa Claus was still pictured in many different ways: from a rascally character wearing a blue, three-cornered hat to a man with a broad-brimmed hat wearing huge Flemish stockings. The famous illustrator, Thomas Nast, drew a cartoon of Santa in 1881 that appeared in the most widely read journal of its day—Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s image became the definitive image of Santa Claus that we know and love today.
Many Ways to Celebrate
The birth of Jesus isn’t celebrated in one way around the world. Here are just a few examples:
- Christians in China have a tradition of giving apples wrapped in colored paper to one another. Why? Christmas Eve in Chinese is “Ping An Ye,” which means quiet or silent night. The word for apple is “Ping Guo” which is pronounced similarly.
- In some parts of Germany, the “Christkind” tradition remains strong. Children often write to Christkind and ask for presents. They decorate their envelopes brightly and leave them on a windowsill at the beginning of Advent. Many children still believe that Christkind delivers the presents, not Santa Claus.
- In Ethiopia, they celebrate Christmas on January 7 based on the old Julian calendar. The celebration is named Ganna. No gifts are exchanged. Instead, people fast on Christmas Eve and the most devout attend services at 4 AM on Ganna morning. It is believed that the wise men who visited baby Jesus came from Ethiopia. Twelve days after Ganna, there is a three-day celebration called Timkat to celebrate the baptism of Christ.
However you celebrate this season of giving, we here at Learning Liftoff wish you a merry and peaceful one! And we invite you to read more about how to infuse your holiday season with meaning and magic.
Michael Solow has worked as a teacher, journalist, and commercial writer/creative director. Michael has also taught high school English and junior high math, gaining his teaching certification from Vassar College and a master's degree in the teaching of writing and literature from George Mason University. His writing has been published in the New York Times, the San Francisco Review of Books, TheMorningNews.org, and the Hemingway Review. He is the proud dad of two grown daughters and the happy husband of an elementary school librarian.