One of the most popular characters during the Advent season especially on Christmas is Santa Claus who is said to bring gifts to the homes of good Christian children on 24 December, the night before the birth of the Savior. However, who is really Santa Claus? Is he for real?
The story of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas who was born sometime around AD 280 in Patara and became the bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Empire, now in Turkey. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. He was also believed to have saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married. Over the course of many years, his popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors and whose name day is on December 6th.
During the Middle Ages, often on the evening before St. Nicholas’ name day, children were given gifts in honour of the saint. But, this custom was tried to be depopularized by Martin Luther with the propagation of gift-giving to children at Christmas to focus the interest of the children to Christ instead of the veneration of saints especially St. Nicholas. Martin Luther first suggested the Christkind as the bringer of gifts but St. Nicholas remained popular as gifts bearer for the people.
Moreover, the name Santa Claus evolved from St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). However, the use of that Americanized name Santa Claus was first recorded in a 1773 American press, Rivington’s Gazette, in New York City: “Last Monday, the anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called Santa Claus, was celebrated at Protestant Hall, at Mr. Waldron’s; where a great number of sons of the ancient saint the Sons of Saint Nicholas celebrated the day with great joy and festivity.” Consequently, it was the popular author Washington Irving who gave Americans the first detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas as written in his History of New York, published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, which described the arrival of the saint on horseback (unaccompanied by Black Peter) each Eve of Saint Nicholas.
Furthermore, Santa Claus achieved his fully Americanized form in 1823 in the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas by writer Clement Clarke Moore who also included in there the details such as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus’ laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas, referred to as an elf, returns up the chimney, which was drawn directly from Irving’s 1809 description.
On the other hand, in the continental Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany), St. Nicholas is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes but sooner lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat based on Irving’s book. The American image of Santa Claus was further elaborated by illustrator Thomas Nast, who depicted a rotund Santa for Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s with added such details of Santa Claus’ workshop at the North Pole and his list of the good and bad children of the world. Also, a human-sized version of Santa Claus rather than the elf of Moore’s poem was depicted in a series of illustrations for Coca-Cola advertisements introduced in 1931 that made the red Santa Suits an icon. In the modern versions, only his toy-shop workers are elves and Rudolph, his ninth reindeer with a red and shiny nose, was invented only in 1939 by an advertising writer for the Montgomery Ward Company.
Thus, over the centuries, customs from different parts of the Northern Hemisphere thus came together and created the world of the modern Santa Claus — a timeless fat thick-billied and white-bearded man in his red jacket and pompom-topped cap who would sally forth on the night before Christmas in his sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer, and climb down chimneys to leave his Christmas gifts in stockings children set out on the fireplace’s mantelpiece.
Nevertheless, the Holy Catholic Church has never taught about the existence and belief of Santa Claus in his modern icon and description but the Church has continuously urged her faithful to honor the good saint of Myra, St. Nicholas, who is a model of true Christian values. Indeed, the commercialized Santa Claus does not exist but St. Nicholas did.
Certainly, Santa Claus won’t come on Christmas eve. Honor St. Nicholas on his feast day, December 6th, instead.