Myths & Legends

The History and Many Faces of Santa Claus

history of santa claus

Trial of Father Christmas

Santa Claus, Saint Nick or Father Christmas has many names, some that date back centuries. In modern times, this character has ties to Christmas, the supposed day of Jesus Christ’s birth. Western society knows him as a magical man who lives in a magical village in the North Pole. There, elves make all of the Christmas toys so Santa can deliver them on Christmas Eve. Naughty children get nothing, of course. This supposed mystery can be laid to rest for several reasons:

  • Parents can typically account for every present under the tree.
  • Tribal children and other non-Christian children can’t be that naughty.
  • The International Space Station has not recorded images of a flying fat man or North Pole village.
  • Do not tell your children, but magic is not real.

In spite of all these reasons that we know Santa is not who we portray him to be today, the history of Santa Claus may have some basis in reality. It is certainly a popular enough myth.

Let us start with the Coca-Cola Santa that we know and love today. This Santa Claus appeared out of nowhere in American literature and was quickly transformed into a staple of western culture. The picture of jolly old Santa is the product of a late 19th century cartoonist and a poet. The poem that spurred the image was a little something called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” In this poem, Santa is a “jolly old elf,” though he is normal-sized now. His “eight tiny reindeer” are normal-sized as well. In fact, the only small things about the Santa myth are his elves.

The history of Santa Claus (a name obviously derived from the much older “Sinterklaas”) is much more than his belly, stature and reindeer. Today, we have names for his reindeer, an idea of how he chooses who gets presents and who does not and much more. The names of all of his reindeer come from “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The idea that he watches all the kids and keeps track of whether they are good or not also comes from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Rudolph came later.

Saint Nicholas of Myra (270-343) is most likely the inspiration for Saint Nick, the Saint Nicholas of Christmas lore and Sinterklaas. He looked very different from jolly Saint Nick as we know him today. However, he did have a beard. Before even him was Odin and his flying, eight-legged horse Sleipnir. At Yule time (the Pagan predecessor to Christmas), Odin would leave gifts for children who left out treats for Sleipnir.

Sinterklaas is probably visually the closest thing historically to Santa Claus. He had a big white beard, wore a red bishop’s hat and had miniscule helpers. Even more telling is that he kept a book listing which children were good and which were bad. He is still celebrated in and originates from areas near, in and around Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The legend of Sinter Klaas has also spread to places like Indonesia and South Africa.

About the mid-19th century, Scandinavia got its own Santa. They call him “Tomte.” The name is quite similar to “Tanta,” which is the name of Santa’s adopted father in the television special “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” That may be a coincidence. There is also Christkind as a Christmas gift giver, but this myth is a childlike creature. Father Christmas is a British myth who provided the inspiration for Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present,” but not that kind of Christmas present. He is a rather pagan and skinny-looking version of Santa Claus. Father Christmas dates back to at least the 17th century.

So, where and why did all of this old man giving away presents lore begin? Saint Nicholas goes back to more than one thousand years ago. Maybe because he was the patron saint of children and was known for giving gifts privately, parents continued to tell his story so they could sneak their children gifts or guilt them into good behavior. Perhaps the story was adopted from the pagan myth of Odin and applied to Saint Nicholas to rid the story of its pagan roots. Whatever the case may be, one thing has certainly changed over the years — children expect far more gifts from modern Santa than from the Santas of Christmases past.

Santa Claus, retrieved 11/28/12,

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Shelly Barclay writes on a variety of topics from animal facts to mysteries in history. Her main focus is military and political history. She is a writer for the Boston History Examiner, Military History Examiner and the Boston American Revolution History Examiner. She also writes for a local historical society newsletter. Shelly was a professional cook for 10 years and still has a passion for food. She cooks and writes about cooking nearly every day. She produces a wide variety of content, on top of her niches. Shelly is a stepmother, a former military, current veteran wife, sister of four and aunt of seven (so far).

Historic Mysteries