From the Original Saint Nicholas to the Pagan, Commercialised Santa Claus


Saint Nicholas of Myra (traditionally 15 March 270 – 6 December 343), also known as Nicholas of Bari, was an early Christian [Catholic] bishop of Greek descent from the maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor (Greek: Μύρα; modern-day Demre, Turkey) during the time of the Roman Empire.

Author Ave Collins, notes, “Nicholas was born in the Greek city of Patara around 270 AD. The son of a businessman named Theophanes and his wife, Nonna, the child’s earliest years were spent in Myra. As a port on the Mediterranean Sea, in the middle of the sea lanes that linked Egypt, Greece and Rome, Myra was a destination for traders, fishermen, and merchant sailors. Spawned by the spirit of both the city’s Greek heritage and the ruling Roman government, cultural endeavors such as art, drama, and music were mainstays of everyday life.”


Author Carol Masters writes of the legend of how stocking gifts came to be…
As a young boy, Nicholas did not involve himself in the games and pranks of the other children of Patara but spent his time at church studying scripture. He then strived to live according to the Christian principles he had learned.

He was nine years old when a plague swept through his village. Both his father and mother died. Although Nicholas moved in with friends of his parents, he felt lost without the two people he had loved so dearly. Bereft of his parents, who was the orphan to love?

As Nicholas grew older he learned to share the love he had given his parents with the people of his village. His father had left him a small inheritance, which ena­bled him to give gifts of food, clothing, or money to the poor. Nicholas was careful to remain anonymous with his charities. Most of his gift giving was done at night when he could hide under the cover of darkness.

One day Nicholas learned that a friend of his father had fallen into poverty. His three daughters, like all maidens of that time, wanted to be happily married. Without money for a dowry, however, marriage was im­possible. One of the girls decided to sell herself as a slave (prostitute), ensuring that at least her sisters could be properly wed.

Nicholas was horrified when he learned of this and decided to intervene. Late that night he made his way to their home, tossed a bag of gold through the window, then slipped away before he was discovered. Legend says the gold coins fell into a stocking that had been hung there to dry. Two more nights he crept to the window, each time throwing a bag of gold to the sleeping girls.

On the third night, the gold clattered to the floor and awakened the young girls’ father. He pursued his unknown benefactor through the darkened streets. When he discovered it was Nicholas who had saved his daughter from a life of bondage, he knelt and attempted to kiss Nicholas’ feet. Nicholas refused this homage and re­quested that the man keep the incident a secret. He agreed and only divulged the information on his death­ bed.

As a result of this story, portraits of St. Nicholas often show three golden balls in his hand. Each ball represents a bag of gold tossed into the window.


Nicholas traveled to the Holy Land to continue both his education and religious training while still in his teens. On the return voyage, the ship was overtaken by a violent storm and the frightened sailors pleaded with him to pray. He agreed and knelt on the deck as the storm tossed the ship for two days. When the storm decreased they made safe harbor at Myra, a town near his village of Patara.

Another legend tells of a ship grounded on rocks dur­ing a gale. Afraid the ship would sink and all aboard would perish in the turbulent sea, the sailors prayed to the distant Bishop Nicholas. As they prayed, Nicholas appeared flying toward them through the air. When he landed on the deck the storm abated. Nicholas prayed with the crew, helped them free the ship from the rocks, then flew away. (Perhaps this story gave our modern Santa Claus the ability to fly as he delivers his gifts.) When the ship arrived in the harbor at Myra, the sailors went directly to Nicholas’ church and were amazed to find him standing in front of the altar.

Stories of St. Nicholas spread throughout the world. His fame grew as years passed and his image slowly began to change.

Nicholas died December 6, around a.d. 343. The day was then set aside in honor of this man whose good works and deeds lived on in the hearts of the people he had served. People referred to him as a saint long before the church officially began to canonize early Christians.


In Holland, St. Nicholas retained his bishop’s robes but acquired a white horse and helper. Black Peter was a devilish looking character with red eyes and horns on his head. It was Black Peter who slid down chimneys and, on the advice of the saint, delivered pre­sents to the good children and birch rods to the bad.

In remembrance of St. Nicholas tossing the three bags of gold to the sleeping maidens, Dutch congregations filled three wooden shoes with money on December 5 and placed them on the church altars. The money was then distributed to the poor in St. Nicholas’ name. Dutch children placed empty wooden shoes next to their fireplaces on St. Nicholas Eve. This custom spread and by die late 1400s children all over Europe were putting out empty shoes or stockings on December 5.

In northern Germany, Nicholas lost his bishops robes and became known as Pelze Nichol, or fur-clad Nicholas. As in Holland, German children set out shoes on De­cember 5 and found candy and goodies in them the next morning. However, German children also placed notes in their shoes for St. Nicholas to deliver to Christkindl, the Christ child, who delivered gifts on Christmas Day.

In the mid 1500s, Protestant churches under the lead­ership of Martin Luther were being formed. Luther de­nounced the worship of saints, especially St. Nicholas. By the 1600s the day of gift giving had been changed in many countries to Christmas Day.

In England, after St. Nicholas Day was no longer observed, the role of gift giver fell to Father Christmas. He was a large man who wore scarlet robes lined with fur. Father Christmas evolved from Roman homage to the god Saturn and the tradition of celebrating his winter feast, Saturnalia.

In Holland, however, Protestant children continued to celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6. In 1624 when Dutch immigrants sailed to America, the celebra­tion of St. Nicholas arrived with them. Their first church in the New World was named St. Nicholas and the ship they sailed in, the Goedevrouw, had a figurehead of St.Nicholas on its hull.

In 1664 Great Britain took control of New Amsterdam, and changed the name to New York. The English began to settle in the New World and brought their custom of Father Christmas, who delivered his gifts on Christmas Eve. The Dutch continued to believe in Sinter Claes or Sancte Claus and received gifts from him on December 6, St. Nicholas Day.

As the years passed, Dutch and English intermarried and Father Christmas and Sancte Claus blended into one figure. By the end of the American Revolutionary War, St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was generally known in the United States as Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, has another well-known counterpart. German immigrants brought to Pennsyl­vania the belief in their gift giver the Christkindl, or Christ child. As with the Dutch and English, intermar­riage between the German and English produced a mingling of customs. Kriss Kringle emerged, resembling Pelze Nichol or fur clad Nicholas.


The first person to write about St. Nicholas in the newly formed United States was Washington Jrving. A native of New York City, he wrote a satirical novel en­ titled “A History of New York from the Beginning of the New World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.” The book was authored under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker and was published on December 6, 1890—St. Nicholas Day in Old Amsterdam.

In this book, Irving describes St. Nicholas dressed in traditional Dutch garb. Black Pete, who had accom­panied St. Nicholas in Holland, was not mentioned at all. Instead, Irving had St. Nicholas himself flying over rooftops and dropping presents down the chimneys.

In 1822 a professor named Clement Moore, also a na­tive of New York City, wrote a poem for his small chil­dren. He did more to influence our modern image of Santa Claus than any other person. In this poem Santas physical characteristics, dress, and mode of travel were made graphic.

“A Visit from St. Nicholas” was written in December of 1822 and read by Moore to his family on Christmas Eve. A young woman who was present at the reading asked for a copy. The next Christmas she mailed it to the editor of a small New York state newspaper where it was printed anonymously for the first time December 23,1823, in the Troy Sentinel.

A Dutch handyman who worked for Moore at his home, Chelsea House, in what is now midtown Man­hattan, is thought to have been the model for Moores Santa Claus. The transformation from the tall, thin, stately Bishop of Myra into a plump, jolly old man, became complete as Moore described St. Nicholas to his chil­dren.

He had a broad face and a round little belly
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowl
full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump—a right jolly old elf.
And I laughed, when I saw him, in spite of myself.

Why an elf? Perhaps Moore had friends from Sweden who had told him tales of their gift giver, Jultomte. Jultomte wore a red hat, had a long white beard, and was an elf. Or perhaps Moore could visualize an elf sliding down chimneys easier than a full-grown man.

Moore had undoubtedly read a booklet published anonymously in 1821. A New Tears Present for the Little Ones from Five to Twelve was the name of Volume III of A Children’s Friend. It was all about Christmas, and for the first time Santa Claus was pictured driving a sleigh pulled by one single reindeer. In Moores poem he not only increased the number of reindeer to eight, but gave them each a name. These reindeer have become, in the
twentieth century, as famous as Santa Claus himself.

Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for Harpers Weekly Mag­azine, is the next person credited with aiding the trans­formation of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, to Santa Claus, jolly gift giver.

His first picture of Santa Claus, a pen and ink drawing, appeared in Harpers Weekly Magazine in 1863. For the next 23 years, until 1886, Nast drew a new Santa picture for this magazine each Christmas season. It was Nast who gave Santa Claus the North Pole for an address and pictured him in his workshop sur­rounded by toys.

Besides giving Santa a home at the North Pole, Nast made another important contribution. When asked to reproduce seven of his close-up portraits into a book using the newly developed color printing, a decision had to be made. Until then, all portraits of Santa had been in black and white. Nast may have chosen red for Santas suit simply because it is such a vibrant color even in print, or he may have chosen this color in honor of the red bishops robes that St. Nicholas himself wore.

In 1931 Haddon Sundblom was commissioned by Coca Cola to illustrate Christmas ads that depicted Santa Claus drinking this popular beverage. Basically the same jolly, robust character as in the Nast pictures, Sundblom made one important change. Santa was no longer an elf but a full-grown man nearly six feet tall. It is the Sundblom image that people today visualize when they hear the name Santa Claus.

It is difficult to discern any physical trace of Nicholas, the actual Christian saint, in the character figure we have named Santa Claus. Yet Santa’s selfless spirit does go back almost 1700 years to the saintly Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. The tradition of gift giving was born of his devotion to God—a devotion he demonstrated through a sincere and unpretentious life of service to his people. This spirit of giving has endured through the centuries and emerges again in our own Christmas season embodied in the folk hero we call Santa Claus.


Christmas Celebration/Odysee

By CAROL L. MASTERS with augmenting from ACE COLLINS
Originally published in “Christmas: The Annual Christmas Literature and Art”, Volume 58, 1988, Augsburg Publishing House

Collins, Ace (2009). “Stories Behind Men of Faith”. Zondervan. p. 121. ISBN 9780310564560. Archived from the original on 11 September 2015. Retrieved 28 November 2015

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” Book Cover. Books Tell You Why. Retrieved from

Jultomte and a goat as painted by Jenny Nyström. Retrieved from

The dowry for the three virgins (Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1425, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome). Retrieved from

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