Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Old Saint Nic – these are just some of the names given to the white-bearded man who rides through the skies on Christmas Eve, delivering presents to children around the world. But he was not always depicted as the old man in red with his magic sleigh and flying reindeer. In fact, the real story of this man goes back a very long way and takes an astonishing journey around the world.
Born in the Med
The Santa Claus we know today resides in the North Pole and lives a somewhat arctic life with elves and magic. But the original figure was in fact a wiry bishop named Nicolaus, donning different coloured robes and born in Greece in 280AD.
Patron Saint of Children and Bringer of Gifts
Saint Nicolaus was a much loved man whose name quickly became associated with all kinds of good deeds and miracles. According to historian Gerry Bowler (author of Santa Claus: A Biography), there are two old stories that are said to have sown the seeds for his saintly reputation: one where he bestowed gifts to children in need; another where he resurrected children who had met an untimely end.
White Hair and the Gift of Flight
The Greek-born Saint Nicolaus would have likely been black-haired and olive-skinned. But as the years passed after his death his popularity continued to grow, and images of him began to bear resemblance to early European deities – often white-bearded men with magical powers such as flight and a firm but loving hand that encouraged good behaviour.
From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus
The name Santa Claus first came into play when people from the Netherlands took their much loved Sinterklass (Dutch for Saint Nicolaus) and all he represented to the New World colonies. Meanwhile, in a newly discovered North America, and back in England too, the holiday season was more of a community-led pagan outdoor knees-up with Christians often being the only ones to celebrate the days associated with the birth of Christ.
The Man in the Big Red Coat
The final evolution that took Old Saint Nic to the Santa Claus of today came about during the early 19th Century thanks to a series of poets, artists and writers, who endeavoured to make Christmas a family celebration.
The famous image of the jolly plump man is almost certainly from Clement Clarke Moore’s well-known story – The Night Before Christmas – originally titled, A Visit From St. Nicholas. It is in this tale, published anonymously in 1822, that a kind old man rides a sleigh led by eight reindeer.
It wasn’t until the late 19th Century that the world’s population seemed to settle on a full-sized adult dressed in red with white fur trim as the standard appearance of Santa. He then underwent a resurgence in Europe with various translations of Father Christmas being added to his many names.