Few things in this world capture the magic of childhood like Santa Claus. Dubbed “Father Christmas,” he’s the jolly old elf who keeps tabs on the kiddos throughout the year, and in return for good behavior, showers them with gifts on Christmas Eve. For most of us, this holiday tradition captivated our childhood and nurtured a sense of youthful innocence like nothing else. A question that’s raised, however, is where this annual ritual takes root, and just how much has it changed to evolve into the festive holiday tradition that we know so well.
A long time ago, in the 4th century A.D., there was a renowned Christian bishop in the Roman Empire. His name was St. Nicholas, and he was famous for his generosity, namely giving gifts to the poor — once going so far to give dowries to three impoverished girls so they would not have to become prostitutes.
A faithful Christian, Nicholas devoted his life to God and did so at a young age. His exploits and his deeds earned him a day on the calendar, St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. As early as the Middle Ages, children were said to be visited by St. Nicholas and given gifts on the eve of his holiday. For many, St. Nicholas would not enter the home, but rather drop toys down the chimney. In the Netherlands, people called St. Nicholas “Sinterklaas.”
In England, around the 16th century, there was a legendary gift giver called “Father Christmas.” He was said to be a large, bearded man dressed in fur-lined green robes and personified the season with joy, peace, wine and feasting. Those familiar with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” may note that the ghost of Christmas Present is modeled after Father Christmas.
By the 18th century, the tradition of an annual gift giver during Christmas began to gain more popularity. European culture began to merge St. Nicholas and Father Christmas into one holiday figure that became known as Santa Claus, a phonetic deviation from “Sinterklaas.” He was first pictured as a robust little man in sailor’s clothing with a pipe between his teeth.
A more modern version of Santa Claus was born in 1823 in the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” known today as “The Night Before Christmas.” In this poem, St. Nick is portrayed as a plump, chubby, and “jolly old elf.” It was here that Santa began riding in the night in a flying sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, their names being published for the first time ever. The poem made Santa Claus one of the most famous figures of the Christmas season, prompting many sketches and other works of art that depicted the man. The most prominent drawing was done by cartoonist Thomas Nast who is credited with not only providing a more modern version of Santa, but the story of Santa and Mrs. Claus living in the North Pole.
As you know, there are several Christmas Eve rituals associated with Santa Claus, such as laying out cookies and milk. In Britain and Australia, it was common to leave beer, sherry or minced pies out. In Scandinavian traditions, children often left rice porridge. In Ireland, it was common to set out milk and a plate of minced pies.
By the 1930s, Santa Claus would go through a bit of a modern makeover to resemble the figure we know so well today. He was adopted by The Coca-Cola Company as a holiday mascot. Further bolstering Santa’s association with charity, volunteers for the Salvation Army began dressing as St. Nick and became part of a fundraising drive for needy families, one that still carries on into the 21st century.
For most of history, it was presumed that Santa handmade toys himself. At some point in the early 20th century an idea emerged that elves made the toys in a workshop. Interestingly, the elves have evolved as well, advancing from tinker-style builders to assembly line workers in 21st century depictions in movies such as “Elf.”
There’s no doubt that Santa Claus has made some major changes throughout history. One thing that has always remained unchanged, however, is the innocence and giving nature that this time-honored Christmas tradition represents. Today, in a world turned upside down with social unrest, old St. Nicholas remains a shining symbol of purity and generosity.
On a side note, Santa and Mrs. Claus will be at the museum on Thursday, Dec. 2, as part of our Magic of Christmas event. He will be available 6:30-8 p.m. and accompanied by a photographer to capture some precious moments with St. Nick and the kiddos who come to see him. This event is free and the public is welcome.