Santa Who?

By Paul R. Huard

September 5, 2008 5 min read


The mystery and legend behind the man in red

Paul R. Huard

Creators News Service

It is one of history's most vexing mysteries, causing both children and grownups to ask the same question year after year: Is there really a Santa Claus?

The brief answer is "yes" -- and not just the metaphysical Santa described in the famous 1897 answer given by the New York Sun to Virginia O'Hanlon, which said, "He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist."

Although the current character of Santa Claus -- a rubicund, jolly gift-giver who lives at the North Pole and rides in a magical sleigh -- has more to do with advertising images and Victorian sentimentality than a real person, history reveals an individual who had many of the qualities of kindness and compassion traditionally associated with Christmas.

His name was St. Nicholas.

"When my children were small, I wanted them to understand there was a person of faith behind Santa Claus," Carol Myers, writer and editor of the website for the St. Nicholas Center (, said. The center serves as a nonprofit foundation in Holland, Mich., dedicated to helping people understand the life of St. Nicholas and the Christian origins of the Santa Claus character.

According to Myers, the true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in an area that is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His parents raised him to be a devout Christian. However, they died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young.

Nicholas' parents left him a lot of money. Despite that, Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the sick, the needy and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God. Because of this, he was made the Bishop of Myra as a young man.

"That person was more concerned with giving, not getting; compassion, not consumption," Myers said. She serves as a member of the Reformed Church in America whose work on the website is spurred by her Christian faith. "You can use Santa Claus to look beyond yourself, putting the focus on others rather than the question, 'What am I going to get this year?'"

Dec. 6, or St. Nicholas Day, became a popular holiday during the Middle Ages because of the gift giving associated with the day. Gifts were usually good things to eat, such as apples, oranges, nuts and eventually cookies and sweets. Both the rich and poor adopted the custom.

In America, St. Nicholas received a big boost as the official bearer of Christmas gifts from the immensely popular 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," more popularly known as "The Night Before Christmas."

But he also began his transformation into chubby, jolly old elf -- a development that hastened the change from a rather severe looking Christian bishop into a child's best friend.

In 1863, Harper's Weekly started printing annual black-and-white drawings from political cartoonist Thomas Nast that were based in part on the description of St. Nicholas in the poem.

Instead of a tall thin man, Santa became rounder, with a flowing beard, fur garments and a clay pipe. The Nast image of Santa Claus was profoundly influential on the American concept of the character, creating the image we recognize today.

By the 20th century, Santa Claus was in magazines, on billboards and at shop counters endorsing an amazing range of consumer products. He became the spokesman for the commercial side of Christmas.

But Myers, who says she is no foe of the familiar image of Santa, thinks discovering the traditional St. Nicholas can reintroduce a person to the true meaning of Christmas.

"Santa Claus, as we know him, was developed to boost Christmas sales, the commercial Christmas message. St. Nicholas told the story of Christ and peace, goodwill toward all, the hope-filled Christmas message," Myers said. "Santa Claus isn't bad. St. Nicholas is just better."

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