It’s that jolly time of year, so today I’ll feed your inner nerd with the origins of Santa Claus.
Santa Claus is the Americanized name for St. Nicholas, a 4th Century bishop in what is now modern day Turkey. (More on that in a minute). When the Dutch settled New Amsterdam—today’s New York—they brought with them the tradition of Sinterklass, with “sint” meaning “saint”, followed by “heer”, meaning “mister”, and “klass” being a contraction of “niklass”—so, in English, it became St. Nicholas. During American myth-making in the 1800’s, one thread kept to the English name St. Nicholas while another thread eventually Americanized Sinterklaas to Santa Claus, which is really a curious combination of Latin-derived “santa” and the Germanic “Nicholas”.
St. Nicholas was a pretty famous guy in 4th Century Turkey. He was a well-respected theologian; he even weighed in on the controversial Nicene Creed. Naturally, he worked miracles. But he was also known for his compassion for the poor. In one story, a destitute father was worried that his three daughters would be sold as prostitutes because dad didn’t have any moolah for a dowry. St. Nick decided to do something about the father’s plight. The daughters had hung their stockings on the fireplace to dry. St. Nick snuck up to the roof and dropped a piece of gold down the chimney into one of the stockings—enough for a dowry. He did this twice more for the other two daughters. When the grateful dad caught him in the act, St. Nicholas became eulogized as a bestower of secret gifts. You can see where this is heading.
As Christianity spread through Europe, so did the celebration of St. Nicholas’ day, December 6th, the day he died. In essential respects the celebration of his gift-giving is fairly uniform. Children put out stockings, or their boots, on the night of December 5th. The next morning they’re filled with candies and other treats—gifts from St. Nicholas.
Now, it might surprise you to learn that down in 4th Century Turkey St. Nick did not wear a red and white parka, nor did he have a sleigh pulled by reindeer. By all accounts, he was sober looking, wore a pointy bishop’s hat, and holds a bishop’s staff. In Europe, he is still mostly characterized as a bishop, although I have noticed that in recent portrayals his beard, instead of a serious wise-man kind of beard, looks more like fleece that adorns the chin of America’s jolly old St. Nick. But in other accoutrements he’s still basically a bishop.
Not in the U.S That transformation began in the early 1800’s. After the American Revolution, it was trendy to create traditions that were non-English. When Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch origins of New York, he described a St. Nicholas who looked like a jolly Dutch burgher puffing on a pipe. Then in 1821 came Irving’s wonderful poem, The Night Before Christmas:
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
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. . . .
Coca-Cola cemented this image with an advertising blitz in the 1930’s.
In a nutshell, that’s how we got the modern American Santa Claus. The English, having already moved the celebration of St. Nicholas’ day to December 25th, Santa Claus became the secular paragon to celebrate the birth of Christ. Ho Ho Ho!
Word Odyssey is a weekly column on words, their origins and the stories that go with them. It appears each Thursday (except this week and maybe a few others) on The Range.