Today’s image of Santa Claus is an America creation born in New York. His roots go back to the Dutch Sinterklaas, a chubby, white bearded man wearing a red-suit who travelled by reindeer and descended chimneys to put presents under the Christmas tree. What you call him, Santa Claus as he’s called by many, depends on where you live. The Dutch call him Sinterklaas, the French Pere Noel and the English call him Father Christmas.
Historical records show that Nicholas, the forerunner to Sinterklaas, was born in Para, Turkey in 270 CE. He later became bishop of Myra. Nicholas died in 345 CE on December 6th and he became Saint Nicholas in the 19th century. There is a recurring theme in the stories about Nicholas. Nicholas used his own money to help the disadvantaged, anonymously.
Saint Nicholas’ story spread north to the Germans and the Celtics. These groups worshipped gods led by Woden. Woden had a long white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. Nicholas merged with Woden. He shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying-horse and rescheduled his flight to December 6th. The Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he distributed gifts on December 25th instead of December 6th.
In 1807, a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. The site of Nicholas’ new burial site was the former home to a female-deity called The Grandmother. This deity filled children’s stockings with gifts. Members of The Grandmother cult transferred their allegiance to Nicholas. In time, they also gave each other gifts in an annual pageant on December 6th.
In 1809, Washington Irving wrote a satire of Dutch culture entitled Knickerbocker History. The satire referred several times to a white bearded flying-horse Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name Santa Claus.
Dr Clement Moore published his poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Moore portrayed Santa Claus living in the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves and his list of good and bad children. From 1862 – 1886, Thomas Nast painted pictures of Santa Claus. Based on Moore’s poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas Nast drew a series of illustrations of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s portrayal of Santa Claus was the beginning of the Santa Claus that we now know.
In 1931, Coco – Cola contracted Haddon Sunblom to create a coke-drinking Santa. He modeled his version of Santa on a chubby and cheerful friend. Coco – Cola insisted that Santa wear a fur-trimmed red suit in Coco-Cola red.