Where did the idea of Santa Claus come from?

by Luke Wayne
12/1/16

The modern concept of Santa Claus derives from the gradual blending of a variety of traditions into one mythical figure. Ironically, none of these traditions has anything to do with Christmas, and historically they were all connected with other days (usually in December or early January). The tradition of Santa Claus is very loosely tied to the historical figure, Nicholas of Myra, or "Saint Nicholas."

Nicholas of Myra in History and Tradition

The name "Santa Claus" literally means "Saint Nicholas."1 This harkens back to the 4th century AD and a man named Nicholas who was Bishop of the church in Myra (a city once located in Asia Minor or what is now the nation of Turkey). There is very little historical information about Nicholas, though records do show that he was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. One later tradition claimed that he literally punched (or slapped) the heretic Arius, but we can hardly verify this.

Most of what we "know" about Nicholas is not from primary sources but rather from later legends that developed about him. These legends have him born already so full of religious devotion that he refused to nurse on fast days. They tell of him working great miracles in life and his bones and relics working even more miracles after his death. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are also stories of his great generosity. The most famous legend is that of his giving three gifts of dowry money by wrapping them up and tossing them through a window to save an impoverished nobleman from selling his three virgin daughters into slavery or prostitution.2 Thus we find the very basic elements of Nicholas as a supernatural figure and an anonymous gift giver.

In Roman Catholic Europe of the Middle Ages, the veneration of dead saints and the attribution of ongoing miracles to them was not unusual. The veneration of Nicholas did take on a unique tone, however, and by the twelfth century he had become the most popular Catholic Saint other than the Virgin Mary herself.3 Saints generally had annual feast days in their honor, and Saint Nicholas' day fell on December 6, right on the cusp of the Christmas season but (at the time) clearly distinct from it. In France, Nuns would give treats to children in Saint Nicholas' name, and Nicholas himself was pictured as a man with gifts but also with a rod of correction in his hand for children who misbehaved.4 Thus, a basic skeleton of our Santa Claus tradition is visible in the Saint Nicholas veneration in Medieval Europe.

Three Kings Day

The Bible tells us that, sometime after Jesus' birth, a group of Magi from the east came to worship Him and honor Him with gifts. The Bible doesn't tell us how many Magi there were, but over time a tradition developed that there were exactly three. They further came to be thought of as kings rather than merely magi or wise men. The date of January 6 was set as the day that these "three kings" arrived in Bethlehem. This was (and is) celebrated as the holiday of "Epiphany," or in some parts of Europe, "Three Kings Day." In some places (especially in Spain), gift giving became associated with the day to commemorate the gifts that the Magi brought to Jesus, and children would leave their shoes out the night before Three Kings Day so that the Three Kings could come and fill them with treats by morning. Though distinct from Christmas, this holiday is closely tied to Christmas and the celebration of the two often run together into one long festival of sorts. In fact, this is where the idea of the "twelve days of Christmas" comes into some of our songs and traditions. It is not hard to see the similarities between the Three Kings Day tradition and American children hanging stockings in hopes of treats from Santa.

European Folk Traditions

European folklore is full of regional legends about annual gift givers who reward good children with treats and often punish misbehavior. They are usually portrayed as ragged, wild men, though sometimes witches or even horrifying, beastly creatures are given the role. It is impossible to tell for sure how far back these traditions go or precisely where they come from, but the general idea of a magical gift giver who delivered treats every year and threatened punishment of naughty kids seems to show up in almost every region of Europe in one way or another. Many of these characters have been modified over the years and even transformed into companions of Santa Claus and made part of Christmas traditions still practiced in their home countries today. That Santa Clause would have a goat-demon sidekick in Austria may seem bizarre to Americans, but perhaps not much more bizarre than a cohort of immortal elves or a flying reindeer with a magic sky-light nose like we find in the American tradition. What has happened, a little differently in each country, is that these various traditions tied to different winter days and events have blurred together into one holiday mythology that has become a part of a generic winter celebration that is the secular or cultural "Christmas" holiday which has come to parallel the Christian celebration of Christ's Nativity.

Few in America celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in December or Three Kings Day in January, but we have unknowingly borrowed from these and so many other European traditions in crafting the whimsical narrative that has become the secular side of the American Christmas. Ironically, none of this originally had anything to do with Christmas Day. It grew out of other seasonal celebrations that (with the exception of Three Kings Day, which connects directly to the Nativity Story) had no ties to Christmas other than the coincidence of falling on the same time of year. It is from all of this that we have arrived today at the notion of the red-suited old man in the North Pole who gives gifts every year for no discernible reason. He is not a Christian figure or even a pagan figure, but a modern secular story loosely inspired by a dozen earlier legends and folk traditions and is meant only to amuse children around the holidays.

  • 1. "Santa" means "Saint." "Claus" (actually pronounced "clows" rather than "claws") is a Germanic abbreviation of the name Nicholas.
  • 2. Tara Moore, Christmas: The Sacred to Santa (Reaktion Books, 2014) Chapter 7, Kindle Locations 2046-2048
  • 3. ibid, Kindle Locations 2066-2068
  • 4. ibid, Kindle Location 2070