Americans will often assert that Santa Claus and St. Nicholas are one and the same. We are aware that St. Nicholas was an actual historical figure (even if we don’t know quite who he was, what he did, where he lived, etc.), but we know that he’s somehow the inspiration for our modern day, beloved Santa Claus. So how did a third-century saint from Turkey donning robes and a miter and carrying a staff evolve in the American mind into a merry, bearded, heavy-set gentleman dressed in a red fur suit who travels by way of flying reindeer? It has to do, in large part with a poem, but more on that in moment.
In sixteenth century Europe, Protestant reformers did not look kindly on saints or the celebrations surrounding them, and they worked to cleanse the church of them. They had little success convincing people to give up St. Nicholas in most of Europe, but they did manage to erase him from worship in England. Since most of the early colonists to the Americas came from England, St. Nicholas had very little presence in the New World.
Without St. Nicholas’ feast – or any kind of religious celebration- the Christmas season became secular rather than religious. Festivities centered around drinking and disorderly behavior rather than the the gospel, and even churches took the view that Christmas and worship did not go together. Then in the Victorian era home life was central, and as a result, Christmas became more wholesome and child-oriented, and St. Nicholas was invited back to the party – but with a bit of a makeover. He began to appear in a children’s publication with the name “Sante Claus,” and he was said to live in the North Pole, ride in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, and deliver toys on Christmas day to well-behaved children.
In 1823 America was given the image of Santa Claus that captured the imagination and has stuck with us ever since. A story-length poem called A Visit From St. Nicholas was anonymously published in a New York newspaper, and it told the story of a father awakened by strange noises on Christmas Eve. He runs to his window to see “what is the matter,” and witnesses Santa Claus flying in on his sleigh, landing on his roof, sliding down his chimney, and leaving gifts under the family Christmas tree. The two men exchange a knowing look, and Santa flies away exclaiming, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” If you read the author’s description of St. Nicholas, you will see that it matches the images you are currently seeing in advertisements and on TV:
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back, And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack. His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow; The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath; He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself
America fell in love with this version of St. Nicholas, and in love with him we have stayed. A Visit from St. Nicholas (also know as The Night Before Christmas or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) is perhaps the best known American poem, and an important part of our Christmas tradition. Many editions of it exist in book form, and it has been dramatized on film, TV, and the radio, as well as in song. Countless dramatic readings of it have been recorded. Often families read it aloud together before going to bed on Christmas Eve. So if you’re looking to add an American tradition to your holiday, pick up a copy of the book (or find it online), gather around the fire next to the tree, and join us in our devotion to this verse and its “right jolly old elf.”
St. Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus. Retrieved from http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/origin-of-santa/
A Visit from St. Nicholas. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Visit_from_St._Nicholas