The History of Santa Claus

Sinter Klass & Father Christmas

The legend of Saint Nicholas came to the New World with the Dutch settlers in 1624, by the Dutch East India Company. Arriving in New Amsterdam, the Dutch families continued to observe Saint Nicholas Day and a ship from the Mother Country would arrive in the city port around December 5 each year, bearing gifts for the children. After Britain gained control of New Amsterdam in 1644, renaming it New York, English settlers joined the Dutch. They brought their own Christmas gift bearer, Father Christmas. By the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the two Christmas figures had blended into an early version of Santa Claus.

Kris Kringle

German settlers in Pennsylvania brought with them their Christmas gift bearer, the Christkindl. Martin Luther introduced the Christkindl in the 16th Century as a way to combat the growing celebrations of Saint Nicholas, which he thought to be inappropriate. A pretty girl garbed in white robes and a gold halo portrayed the Christkindle, or Christ Child. She doled out gifts to children on Christmas Eve. Over time, the pronunciation of Christkindle was Americanized into Kris Kringle and became another name for Saint Nicholas. Martin Luther must not have been too happy about that.

Washington Irving & Clement Moore

According to legend, the ship carrying Dutch settlers had a figure of Saint Nicholas on the prow. He was depicted smoking a long pipe and wearing a broad brimmed hat. Washington Irving later described this image in 1809, in a satirical history of New York. He described Saint Nicholas as a chubby little man with a jolly smile, drawn by a team of reindeer. This is a far cry from the tall, thin bishop of Myra, who was the real Saint Nicholas.

Irving’s description inspired Dr. Clement Moore, who is famed for his poem Twas The Night Before Christmas, first published in 1832 Indeed, the image that Irving and Moore created is much closer to the Swedish Christmas gnome Jultometen, than the original Saint Nicholas.

Thomas Nast & Santa Claus

The modern version of Saint Nicholas is often credited to Thomas Nast, who emigrated from Bavaria to the United States when he was six years old. He brought with him the memories of Pelznickle, or Furry Nicholas, a German variant of Saint Nicholas. As a way to lift the spirits of Union soldiers during the Civil War, Nast created a patriotic picture of Saint Nicholas garbed in red, white and blue. Nast drew cartoons of Saint Nicholas, now firmly called Santa Claus, each year for Harpers Weekly from 1863 to 1886. He depicted images of Santa checking off his list of good and bad children, riding across the sky in a sleigh with his eight reindeer and filling stockings by the fireplace. Nast is also credited with saying Santa lives at the North Pole. This is may have been inspired by current events, since at the time new explorations of the North Pole were underway by explorers from Russia, Britain and Scandinavia. The modern day image of Santa was established.

 

Originally published at Suite101 How America Invented Santa Clause
All Rights Reserved (c) Lorri Brown 2015
Images Courtesy of Public Domain

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