St. Nicholas was a 4th century saint who was known for giving gifts and alms in secret. While the modern Santa Claus is known for giving less practical gifts, St. Nicholas was primarily (as the legends have it) devoted to caring for the hungry and making up for the wrongdoing of others with his giftgiving. His most famous legend is probably the one in which he encourages sailors to unload a sizeable tonnage of wheat to help combat a famine, and prevents them from getting in trouble by somehow multiplying the wheat left onboard so as to not get the sailors in trouble for theft. His followers would celebrate his saints’ day by giving out baskets of food to the needy and gifts to children. For practical considerations, the food distribution was done on one day only: December 6. However, gifts to the kids were done at virtually any time during these festivals and celebrations. The fact that he had enormous following within Catholic, high Protestant and Orthodox communities across Europe meant that St. Nick was almost ubiquitous as a gift-giving character.
St. Nicholas came to America via the Dutch in a roundabout way. The Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, built in 1213, was dedicated to St. Nicholas in 1306 by the Bishop of Utrecht. It remained Roman Catholic until the “Alteratie” in 1578. The war with the Spanish Catholics had just been won, and so the Dutch were free to convert to whatever religion they wanted. They did – and the Oude Kerk became Calvinist. As Protestants – and as Calvinists – the Dutch were obligated to honor God through work. Work they did, starting up merchant companies and organizing trade routes throughout the world. Though they started to become immensely profitable, the Calvinists had not dropped the Medieval socialist mentality that argued that wealth was somehow wrong if others didn’t benefit; thus, the Dutch turned out to be embarrassed that they were making money! As St. Nick was beneficent towards the poor, the Calvinists had no need to take St. Nicholas down as a role model at the Oude Kerk, and he continued to be celebrated though he was no longer venerated as a saint. The Dutch version, Sinterklaas, was more or less a non-religious moral guide that could be embedded with his own folklore, but was not to be worshipped. This was something that translated easily to America.
In 1804, the New York Historical Society was founded and its members chose St. Nick to be the society’s patron saint. A later member, Washington Irving, soon began to claim that Sinterklaas, or Sinter Claes, was introduced to New Amsterdam in 1626 by Dutch settlers. This was not out of the question: those settlers were Protestant, and may have brought the St. Nick tradition with them. However, this claim cannot be proven (yet). Irving only got away with it by including it in a survey of New Amsterdam Dutch traditions that he published in 1809 as “A History of New York” under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker. This setup for the Americanization of the Santa Claus myth was part of a broader effort by Irving and other important New York literati to solemnize the tumultuous ways that New Yorkers celebrated Christmas. Instead of a benign love for one another, the period was rife with muggings of the rich (to give to the poor, one would assume) and intermittent violent class and race riots in and around the holidays. By bringing in the St. Nicholas tradition one way or another, these influential citizens sought to shame the populace into behaving by creating, molding and popularizing the myth of a father figure who rewarded you if you were good, and punished you if you were bad.
It is no accident that Clement Moore was to take credit for “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the famous Christmas poem published anonymously in a New York paper in 1823. Moore was a good friend of Irving’s and derived much of his source material for the poem from “A History of New York.” With the poem’s continual reprints in New York media and Christmas Day becoming increasingly popular versus New Year’s Day as the centerpoint family holiday of the season, the myth gained much ground. (It was probably easier to get people to be less rowdy on some other day – New Year’s Day is STILL a hot mess the world over.)
Our modern visual conception of Santa is based on the work of a professional political cartoonist named Thomas Nast, who spent his career fighting the corrupt New York politicians of Tammany Hall, supporting the rights of minorities (American Indians, Chinese Americans and black Americans, but certainly not Irish Americans), condemning slavery and drawing the images that still remain today as the symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties (the party of dumb heavies vs. the party of braying asses). Despite his often admirable political stances, many of his illustrations of Chinese and black Americans tended to be racist stereotypes and caricatures (“John Chinaman”), not atypical of other print illustrators of the time and certainly not of political cartoonists in general – whose job it was to caricature all of their subjects in the name of advancing their beliefs.
As a New Yorker growing up in that time, it would have been impossible for Nast to not have heard about Sinter Claes/Santa Claus. What he did was to finally provide a popular artistic rendering of written details and descriptions that were already largely out in the public imagination. His work was published in Harper’s Weekly, which was then a hugely influential publication. Nast based his Santa Claus largely off of descriptions in Moore’s poem, but also took material from elsewhere. Santa’s statelessness and permanent homesteading in the North Pole (soon to be Canadian) was based on George Webster’s 1869 poem “Santa Claus and his Works,” illustrated by Nast.
“I told you his home was up north by the Pole:
In a palace of ice lives this happy old soul…”
- George Webster
Somewhat ironically, Nast’s gluttonous Santa Claus is tangentially involved with a religious fight between Puritans and non-Puritans in England during the 17th century. The “first” version of Santa Claus (that wasn’t Saint Nicholas) seems to be as Lord Christmas, a character in a 15th century carol that encouraged everyone to eat, drink and “be right merry.” This image only caught on during the early 17th century, when a larger community began to adopt the idea of a jolly old man who was the sponsor of traditional Christmas-time celebrations. When a political fight began developing between Royalists, who were pro-Christmas celebrations, and puritans, who wanted the banning of all public celebrations as they were examples of gluttony and other sinful behaviors, Lord Christmas was molded into a symbolic character that would be more appreciable to the population. Lord Christmas became Father Christmas, an old fellow who was both wise and kind and whose “cherry cheeks appeared through his thin milk white locks, like (b)lushing Roses vail’d with snow white Tiffany,” according to 1680s pamphleteer Josiah King. Additionally, to appeal to conservative-minded folk who weren’t quite on the end of the puritan spectrum, he tended to be drawn as skinny, given to good cheer but not to excess. More liberal publications would draw him as fat (and jolly), but this was not the common conception.
Many of the Puritans who disdained Christmas celebrations ended up settling America; they may have rolled over in their graves when popular American society began celebrating Christmas wholesale and adopting Nast’s (and Irving’s and Moore’s and etc.) version of Santa Claus. To underline the success of the American Santa Claus myth: once this version became popular, England’s Father Christmas began to borrow traits wholesale from Santa Claus.