It’s that time of year. Parents are rushing to and fro, whether from store to store or website to website, to find the perfect gifts for their children. And children are making lists for Santa. They will write letters and make pleas for all the things their little hearts desire and mail them to a “jolly old elf” clad in red and white furs who lives at the North Pole.
But wait. Santa Claus is also known as St. Nick. And Saint Nicholas didn’t call the North Pole home. He lived in modern-day Turkey. So when did Santa move to his new arctic digs? And just how old is he?
Let’s follow the evolution of the legend and see what it can teach us about world-building. Here are 10 things you might not know about Santa Claus.
- Nicholas, who would later be canonized as Saint Nicholas, was born sometime around 270 AD in a town that was at the time a part of Greece, but today is part of Turkey. He lost his parents at a young age, but was left with a large inheritance. Nicholas decided to dedicate his life to the Christian church and used his inheritance to help those in need whenever he could. The most famous account of this is when Nicholas secretly gave money to an indebted father of three daughters so he would have the money to pay their dowries. That meant the daughters could marry instead of becoming prostitutes to support themselves. The story goes that Nicholas, on three separate occasions (once for each daughter as she came of age) threw a small bag of gold through an open window into the family’s home during the night. The bags landed in shoes or socks that had been hung by the fire to dry. It didn’t take long for the story to spread and children began hanging up their socks to see if they, too, could wake up to life-altering gifts.
- Nicholas was made Archbishop of Myra and served the post at a time when Rome was persecuting Christians. He was no stranger to imprisonment, and possibly even torture, but refused to abandon or renounce his faith. When Constantine came to power, he invited Nicholas to Nicea where he was part of the council that gave us the famous Nicene Creed.
- Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 AD. Hence the reason December 6th is his Saint day. In fact, December 6th is still the day that many cultures exchange gifts–instead of Christmas Day. Fast forward to modern times and forensic scientists have been able to use his remains to create new models for what Nicholas actually looked like. Spoiler alert, it’s not the chubby, red-cheeked guy that pop culture depicts. It’s a man with dark olive-toned skin, deep brown eyes, and a gray beard. While the forensic picture the scientists came up with had to take some artistic license based on probability and common features of people in his area during his time, it still seems much more likely than the Scandinavian looking, blue-eyed version we know. What they can tell is that Nicholas had a crooked nose from a bad break that didn’t heal correctly (possibly from his tenure in prison courtesy of the Romans).
- After Nicholas passed, the stories of his generosity lived on. The tradition of secretly leaving gifts during the night around Saint Nicholas Day became increasingly popular throughout Europe. The prevalence of the celebration continued to spread until a man named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to a wooden door. After the Protestant Reformation, celebrating saints largely fell out of favor in Europe. However, by then people didn’t want to give up the St. Nick traditions, so they secularized him.
- Depending on which part of Europe we’re talking about, the new secular St. Nick took many forms. In some countries, he had taken on the abilities of old pagan deities/legends such as flight and immortality. In others, he not only delivered gifts in the night but also possessed the power to guide the hand of parents in disciplining their children whenever they misbehaved. In some areas, though, they dropped St. Nick altogether in favor of the “Christ Kind” or Christ Child giving gifts on Christmas day. However, the holy child didn’t seem one to be mean and discipline children, so he was given an accomplice who threatened to kidnap and/or beat bad children who didn’t deserve presents. What’s up, Krampus? In any case, and an ironic twist, the Germanic term Christ kind was eventually anglicized into Kris Kringle–another name for Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus.
- As you can imagine, as Europeans traveled the globe (and colonized everything they touched) they took their traditions regarding St. Nick with them. The Dutch took Saint Nicholas or Sint Niklaas, often shortened to Sinterklaas to the “New World”. This too was eventually anglicized into, you guessed it, Santa Claus.
- When the Dutch brought Sinterklaas to American shores, Christmas celebrations were not the family-friendly affairs we think of today. Unless you’re picturing rowdy and raucous holiday parties with heavy amounts of alcohol and at least one big bonfire. Then you’re totally on the right track. However, in the early 1800s it became the fashion for poets and novelists to write about Santa Claus and promote a much more heart-warming holiday. In 1809 Washington Irving gave Santa Claus a pipe and had him flying over rooftops in a wagon. In 1822, Clement Clark Moore, an Episcopalian minister and father of three young girls, wrote a poem for his children, “An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas”. The minister was very hesitant to have the poem published because of its whimsical nature, but his family adored it and pushed for him to do it anyway. It was instantly popular. We better know the poem today as “The Night Before Christmas”. It is in this poem that we first see Santa with a sleigh, reindeer, sliding down chimneys and being jolly.
- In 1881 Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, gave us a rendering of Santa Claus in his now-iconic red color (though this depicted long johns instead of fur robes) with a fluffy white beard, an armload of toys and a red hat. The image was published in Harper’s Weekly and quickly became the accepted image of Old St. Nick. During the 1930s a man named Haddon Sundblom took the concept Nast had drawn and ran with it. He replaced Santa’s long johns with red and white fur and replaced his pipe with a bottle of Coca-Cola. This image had been commissioned by the soft drink company as part of their holiday ad campaign and has been in use ever since.
- During World War II, American soldiers took their concept of Santa Claus with them across the ocean and the idea of a white-bearded, chubby, laughing, red-fur wearing Santa spread like wildfire. For a time, the Russian government even tried to bury Santa under the blue-fur wearing, New Year’s gift-giving, completely devoid of religious sentiment Grandfather Frost, but St. Nick persisted.
- As for Santa’s home at the North Pole, it has been a little harder to trace, but from I can tell it seems to stem from a set of letters that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his children from St. Nick (and sometimes his side-kick North Polar Bear). The letters were eventually published and there was great detail about how the North Polar Bear once wreaked havoc on Santa’s workshop through a series of accidents that almost ruined Christmas. The bear even wrote to the children in “arctic” and they had to decipher the language since it was too difficult for the bear to become truly fluent in English.
And that’s how a Turkish Archbishop gained immortality and moved to the North Pole. Is there a legend that the people in your fictional world believe? Perhaps it, too, evolved over time from something real to something fantastical. It might affect the way people celebrate or don’t celebrate something. Or it might add a touch of magic and evoke emotion. That’s why the Salvation Army began using Santas to ring bells to gather donations near Christmas. The tradition began in the early part of the 20th century when the organization needed to raise money to help pay for the meal they provided each year for families in need. They hired homeless and/or unemployed men to dress as Santa and ring bells on street corners to get attention. It was such a successful campaign that it continues today, though the bell ringers are now volunteers.
A man who became a tradition. A tradition that became a poem. A poem that became an image. An image that became a legend. A legend that became an icon. Never underestimate the power of a person with a good story to tell.