The story begins hundreds of years ago, in the Third century, with St. Nicholas, a monk who was born in the country known today as Turkey around 280 A.D. Depictions of the saint back then showed him as a thin man and not the rotund figure that’s widely recognized today.
A 13th-century Egyptian depiction of St. Nicholas from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Wikimedia Commons/Saint Catherine’s Monastery
St. Nicholas was originally known for his generosity, and the following story ties in that character trait with the Santa we know of today, as told by whychristmas.com:
“There was a poor man who had three daughters. He was so poor, he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn’t get married.One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house The bag fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry! This was repeated later with the second daughter. Finally, determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas dropping in a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done, because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But soon the news got out and when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas.”
St. Nicholas eventually became known “as the protector of children and sailors,” with his feast day being celebrated on Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death, according to history.com.
“This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or get married,” according to history.com.
Fast forward to the 18th century, when St. Nicholas’ legend was brought to America by Dutch settlers in New York, who were influential in what was then called New Amsterdam. The Dutch gave St. Nicholas the nickname “Sinter Klaas,” a derivation of the Dutch Sint Nikolaas, or St. Nicholas.
The modern image of Santa Claus took shape in part to Clement Clark Moore, whose Christmas poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known more popularly as ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’) described the saint as a “right jolly old elf” with a paunch.
It was that poem that cartoonist Thomas Nast took as inspiration for his drawing of Santa Claus as a rotund figure with a white beard and holding toys for children. Nast is also given credit for associating Santa with his North Pole workshop, elves, and Mrs. Claus.
Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus with an illustration for the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Library of Congress
The retail industry also followed suit with these images of Santa, including Coca-Cola, which some still wrongly believe created Kris Kringle:
A Coca-Cola Christmas truck drives through the Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons/Husky
“Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1829, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus,” history.com notes. A life-size Santa Claus was on display in Philadelphia in 1841, and the Salvation Army continued that the tradition of the modern Santa Claus in the early 1890s. The charity had men dress up as Santa Claus – with the now popular red and white robes and beards – to solicit donations.
Now Santa is ubiquitous – in malls, advertising and even on the Internet, where Santa’s journey is documented in real time by NORAD.