Who Was St. Nicholas? The Man Behind Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas has many nicknames, but who was the person behind the Christmas icon?

Santa Claus, Old St. Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, and simply Santa are all terms that refer to the legendary figure that is said to deliver gifts to the homes of well-behaved children on Christmas Eve.

The American version of Santa Claus was inspired by the Dutch fable about Sinterklaas, and it is widely believed that the Dutch figure has roots in historical gift-giver Saint Nicholas. Meanwhile, the Greek Bishop of Myra, modern day Turkey, was known for his secret gifting and love of children.

Saint Nicholas was devout from a young age and is particularly known for presenting three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to turn to prostitution. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of several diverse groups including sailors, archers, pawnbrokers, and children. He is also the patron saint of Amsterdam and Moscow.

While some roots are visibly connected to Saint Nicholas, many qualities of today’s Santa Claus are very different. The Dutch-American Santa Claus achieved his fully Americanized form in 1823 with a poem, “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore. The traditional story described Santa living in the North Pole among numerous magical elves and nine flying reindeer.

Santa Claus is portrayed as a chubby, cheerful white-bearded man wearing a red suit trimmed in white fur with a black belt and black leather boots. The image became popular in the U.S. as well as Canada in the 19th century because of the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast. The character was strengthened when songs, television, books, and film reinforced the illustration. Coca-Cola introduced advertisements including the illustrious Santa Claus in 1931, furthering Nast’s portrayal.

The Christmas character arrives while children are sleeping, with a list of children who have been “naughty or nice” and delivers gifts across the world accordingly. The Christmas Eve feat is made possible by toy-making elves and flying reindeer that pull his sleigh.

Many countries have varying Christmas Eve rituals surrounding Santa Claus – children in the U.S. and Canada leave him a glass of milk and cookies for his arrival. However, in the U.K. and Australia children leave him sherry and mince pies. Swedish children leave rice porridge, and in Ireland it is common to leave Guinness or milk along with mince pies or Christmas pudding for the gift-giver.