What Are the Origins of Santa Claus?

The much loved festive character of Santa Claus has a long and rich history that goes back to ancient times.

Dec 22, 2023By Rosie Lesso, Managing Editor & Curator
what are the origins of santa claus

 

The image of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, that we have today – a jolly man dressed in a red fur trimmed gown with a long white beard – is synonymous with Christmas today. Indeed, many families keep up the tradition that Father Christmas will visit their young children on Christmas eve, filling stockings with gifts and treats to be opened on Christmas day. But where did the notion of Santa Claus come from, and how has it become so intertwined with the family Christmas experience? Was he really a Christian Saint, or merely the result of clever marketing campaigns? Let’s take a brief look at the history of this children’s character to find out more. 

 

St Nicholas

St Nicholas the Miracle Worker, Russian icon, late 19th century. Source: Christie’s
St Nicholas the Miracle Worker, Russian icon, late 19th century. Source: Christie’s

 

The earliest origins of Santa Claus can be traced back to the 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, called St Nicholas. In fact, even today, Santa is sometimes referred to as ‘St Nick’ in a nod to this early Christian saint. According to Biblical texts St Nicholas performed a series of somewhat bizarre miracles, including resurrecting a series of boys who had been murdered and pickled by an innkeeper. In another story St Nicholas rescued three young girls bound for slavery, by throwing three bags of gold down their chimney which became their dowries for marriage.

 

As legend has it, the gold landed in their stockings which were hung up to dry by the fire, prompting the later filled stockings idea. Stories of his gold-giving became popular throughout medieval Europe, and it became common practice for grown-ups to leave gifts for children on the night before the 6th of December, Saint Nicholas Day.

 

Sinterklaas

Re-enactment of the Dutch Sinterklaas traditions once popular across the Netherlands.
Re-enactment of the Dutch Sinterklaas traditions once popular across the Netherlands.

 

The character of Sinterklaas emerged in the Netherlands as a benevolent and generous saint who could magically enter houses via locked doors or chimneys, leaving a trail of gifts for young children at winter time. Markets that celebrated Sinterklaas were popular in medieval Holland, with stalls selling related toys and treats, and impersonators dressed in long red robes appearing to entertain gathered audiences. Over time, the Sinterklaas narrative expanded to include a series of wicked characters who punished badly behaved children, including Krampus, Pere Fouettard, Ru-Klaus, Pelsnickel, and Knecht Rupert.

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Father Christmas

Old English depiction of Father Christmas during the protestant Reformation.
Old English depiction of Father Christmas during the protestant Reformation.

 

Notions of ‘Father Christmas’ can be traced back to at least 15th century England, in a Christmas carol that describes how a character called ‘Sir Christemas’ spread the news of Christ’s birth. Meanwhile during Tudor and Stuart times, wealthy households would employ a ‘Lord of Misrule’ to entertain them during winter festivities, who they called ‘Captain Christmas,’ or ‘Prince Christmas.’ But it was the English playwright Ben Johnson who popularised the idea of an old man with a long white beard in his 1616 play, Christmas, His Masque. Johnson’s character, who called himself ‘Old Christmas,’ had a long, thin white beard, wore a floor length robe, and was accompanied by numerous sons and daughters. 

 

Illustration of Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech. Source: BBC
Illustration of Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech. Source: BBC

Notions of Father Christmas came under fire during the English Civil War, but following the restoration public interest in the character came to the fore, appearing in plays, novels and illustrations. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, 1843, Father Christmas, or who he called the ‘Ghost of Christmas present,’ is a masterful figure adorned in green garb.

 

Kris Kringle

Angelic vintage Christmas illustration.
Angelic vintage Christmas illustration.

 

In line with the symbol of Father Christmas, Protestants during the reformation across Europe tried to erase the Dutch Sinterklaas in a bid to move away from the connection with St Nicholas. Instead, they pushed the notion of Jesus as the gift-giver and personification of Christmas spirit. Germans called him Christkindl, (Christ Child) which later evolved into Kris Kringle in the English language. 

 

Santa Claus

santa claus by thomas nast illustrator creator
Vintage illustrations of Santa Claus by 19th century German-American artist Thomas Nast.

 

Nonetheless, the Sinterklaas traditions never fully disappeared. Dutch colonists carried stories of the character with them to New Amsterdam, where they kept alive stories of a jolly man who flew through the sky in a wagon and dropped presents down chimneys. It was in the American colonies that the character, sometimes called ‘Sancte Claus’ became more commonly associated with children. One 1821 poem by an anonymous author was illustrated with a man riding in a sleigh driven by reindeer, who was said to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve. This was in turn adapted by Clement Clarke Moore in his poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas,’ 1823, later known as ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ 

 

The story grew and grew from here on, most notably through the work of the illustrator Thomas Nast, who played a pivotal role in defining the classic Santa look that we know today (more so than the Coca-Cola adverts that were later, beginning in the 1930s). 

 

Santa Claus Comes to England

The famed vintage Coca Cola adverts that are often cited as the birth of modern Santa Claus. Source: Americana
The famed vintage Coca Cola adverts that are often cited as the birth of modern Santa Claus. Source: Americana

 

Eventually Santa Claus made his way to England, where he merged with the Father Christmas narrative. Victorians readily embraced the notion of Santa Claus as a modern update to the somewhat old-fashioned Father Christmas, and with his arrival came a whole host of other Christmas traditions including fir trees, Christmas crackers, Christmas cards, and gift-giving on Christmas day. Both versions of the name – Father Christmas and Santa Claus – remain popular, but it is the merry, playful, and spirited Santa Claus of Dutch origin that remains most widespread today.

Author Image

By Rosie LessoManaging Editor & CuratorRosie has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly and Scottish Art News. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can enrich our experience of art.