Tradition dictates that tonight, if not the eyes then the dreams of many children will be focused upon a jolly and portly old whitebeard traveling the skies with reindeer and sacks of toys. Santa Claus above all others is a character made up of the qualities that bring smiles to young faces. The figure who is today familiar all over the world is a synthesis of several types that have evolved since the early fourth century, beginning in the southwest of Turkey with a church bishop who eventually came to be called Saint Nicholas, a man renown for his generosity and his fondness for children. But this was at a time long before Christmas began to be associated with a man named Santa Claus.
Roman accounts tell us of St Nick, a bishop who made his rounds in red and white robes, including a twin-peaked miter and hooked staff, but instead of reindeer the humble churchman made his way on the back of a donkey. The day of his arrival was December 6, a Christian feast day and his gifts were meager portions of fruit, nuts, hard candies and small wooden figurines.
The scenario becomes a little more familiar in sixteenth century Holland, where children placed wooden shoes by the hearth the night of St Nicholas’s arrival. The shoes were filled with straw intended as food for the saint’s tired donkey. In place of the straw Nicholas left a small treat inside each shoe. The Dutch brought the tradition with them to America, where over time the wooden shoe was replaced by an expandable stocking hung by the chimney, minus the straw. Somewhere along the way the gift for St Nick’s donkey got left behind while a big stocking good for holding more treats took its place.
The Dutch spelling of St Nicholas was Sint Nikolass, which in America became “Sinterklass.” The name was anglicized into Santa Claus by the English when they took control of New York from the Dutch in the seventeenth century. The lore surrounding our modern-day Santa Claus originated in America, almost completely from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “The Night before Christmas.” The poem was meant for Moore’s children and not anything he wanted credit for. As a classical scholar, Dr Moore was concerned the poem might damage his reputation. But a newspaper got hold of a copy and the poem spread like wildfire. (Moore’s authorship has been disputed, some giving credit to poet Henry Livingston Jr.)
The original St Nicholas was a tall, slender and very elegant bishop, an image carried forward for centuries, and it was only in America that he became the roly-poly Santa with rosy cheeks. We have a nineteenth century cartoonist to thank for that image. From 1863 until 1886 Thomas Nast created a series of Christmas drawings for Harper’s Weekly. Looking at the Nast drawings done over a twenty year span, a gradual evolution in Santa can be seen. He began with a pudgy elf-like man resembling the St Nick of “The Night Before Christmas”
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…
From this he became the life-size pot belly we now see on street corners and Hallmark cards. It was also from Thomas Nast that we built a life for Santa that covered his North Pole home and daily work of making toys for children, as well as hours spent reading their letters with requests for special gifts and checking up on whether they are naughty or nice.