The giant man in a huge white and red suit needs no introduction - children, adults and grandparents know the man without hesitation. Santa Claus, the bringer of gifts, the glutton of milk and cookies and the descender of chimney's is well known in any household.
Christmas time means two things - Christmas trees, and Santa Claus. Which ideally translates to a whole lot of gifts. the anticipation of the big man entering your house and leaving gifts behind if you've been "good" all year is what has kept children from straying away for a long time, but where did the whole hype about Santa come from anyway?
St. Nicholas, The Man, The Myth, The Legend
St. Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. He was mostly admired for his piety and kindness and became the subject of many legends. Legend has it, that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and travelled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the best-known St. Nicholas stories is the time he 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 time, St.Nicholas’s popularity spread around and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married (for purely superstitious reasons.) By the time the Renaissance came about, St. Nicholas was one of the most popular saints in Europe.
St. Nicholas made his first appearance into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773, and then in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honour the anniversary of his death.
The name Santa Claus evolved from his Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shorthand for Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. The background of the engraving contains now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace.
In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. As his prominence grew, Sinter Klaas was described as everything from a “rascal” with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a “huge pair of Flemish trunk hose.”
And as the legends went on, so did his overwhelming presence.
The Gifts, Milk and Cookies and Rudolph
Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping somewhere in the 1820s, and by the 1840s, newspapers had separate sections for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus.
In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. It was only a matter of time before stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a “live” Santa Claus. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided to needy families. They began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations. Those familiar Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells on the street corners of American cities ever since.
The Macy’s Santa has appeared at almost every Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since it began in 1924, and fans of all ages still line up to meet the Macy’s Santa in New York City and at stores around the country, where children can take pictures on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for Christmas.
Santa Claus is often depicted as flying from his home to home on Christmas Eve to deliver toys to children. He flies on his magic sleigh led by his reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and the most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph. Santa enters each home through the chimney, which is why empty Christmas stockings are “hung by the Chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there,” as Clement Clarke Moore wrote in his famous poem.
The red-nosed wonder, Rudolph, was the creation of Robert L. May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store.
In 1939, May wrote a Christmas-themed story-poem to help bring holiday traffic into his store. Using a similar rhyme pattern to Moore’s “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” May told the story of Rudolph, a young reindeer who was teased by the other deer because of his large, glowing, red nose. But, When Christmas Eve turned foggy and Santa worried that he wouldn’t be able to deliver gifts that night, the former outcast saved Christmas by leading the sleigh by the light of his red nose. Rudolph’s message turned to prove popular and then was used all over.
This whole ride from, real to legend to myth gave the world Santa Claus and the rhymes and stories that followed popularized by the intrigued people of the world.