History of Santa Claus: Saint or Elf?

St. Nicholas


He was born in the late 3rd century, perhaps in A.D. 270. Nicholas became a bishop in Greece and gained distinction in the councils of the church. He was especially famed for unexpected gifts and later associated with the giving of presents during the season at the end of the year.

3 golden globes


He seems to have been adopted by the Netherlands as the patron saint of children. There, on St. Nicholas Eve, they leave their wooden shoes, or sabots, filled with hay for the Saint’s white horse. He is real to children the world over, under various names as Kris Kringle, Weihnachtsmann, Father Christmas, Saint Nick, La Befana, and Yule Tomten.


In 1809 the American author Washington Irving, under the pen name Diedrich Knickerbocker, wrote “A History of New York,” wherein Saint Nicholas, a jolly personage smoking a Dutch pipe, skimmed over the treetops in a wagon and dropped presents down the chimneys.



During the Christmas season of 1862, the German-born American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a picture of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly at the time of the Civil War. Nast combined his native German traditions of Saint Nicholas with other German folk traditions of elves in creating the image, seen above right. His various pictures of Santa Claus ran through 1866, firmly cementing the image in the American mind. The name Santa Claus also became more familiar to American ears than the German Sankt Niklaus or Dutch Sinterklaas.

By Haddon Sundblom, for Coca Cola

Writer and technologist. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, and pop culture. billpetro.com @billpetro

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