“Santa Claus” is an Anglo-Germanic rendition of “Saint Nicholas,” which is apt, because the original inspiration is a man named Nicholas who was a saint in the early Christian Church. He is believed to have been born in a Mediterranean village in a prosperous family that raised him in the faith – one of his uncles was a priest -- and when his parents died, he followed his uncle’s vocational path while using his inheritance to help the needy.
Nicholas became a bishop in the church, which had not yet undergone the split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox. Under the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians were widely persecuted; Nicholas was among those imprisoned, although not martyred, as were many early saints. He died of old age, beloved by his fellow believers and revered for his generosity.
In later years, Nicholas would be claimed as a patron saint by many people, especially sailors, as the miracles and good deeds credited to him piled up. In one reported act of kindness, he threw three bags of gold through the window of a house where a poor widower lived with three daughters who needed a dowry in order to marry. It is said that the bags of gold landed in stockings hanging by the chimney. Perhaps you see where this is going...
Nicholas died on Dec. 6 in the year 343 (Dec. 19 on the Julian calendar), and this anniversary became a day of celebration: St. Nicholas Day. In the ensuing centuries, Christianity spread throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire, and by the end of the first Christian millennium, Nicholas was the faith’s most popular saint. He was celebrated, as was Jesus of Nazareth, for his many miracles and his love of children. By the year 1100, French nuns were leaving gifts in St. Nicholas' name at the homes of poor children on the night of Dec. 5.
St. Nick wasn’t nearly done evolving, however. As Christianity spread northward, local peoples merged his legend with those of other sovereigns and deities. The death of Nicholas (and the birth of Jesus) became infused with the Norse and Germanic celebrations of the winter solstice known as Yule.
At some point, the St. Nicholas of Northern Europe was given a horse – one previously ridden by the Norse god Odin. This steed, by the way, could land on rooftops. (As it happens, Odin had a naughty list.) Elsewhere in Scandinavia, a god named Thor seems to have added to Santa’s transportation options: Thor had a cart, pulled by goats. In Holland, where the “Sinterklaas” tradition remains strongest, he still rides a horse named Schimmel. (My personal favorites are the alligators that drag St. Nick’s sleigh through the Louisiana sky in “The Cajun Night Before Christmas.” But I’m getting ahead of our story.)
It was the Dutch who brought this tradition to America. Here, it was refined many times again, first in print and ultimately by tens of thousands of mall Santas in identical red suits. The jolly old elf made his first appearance in a New York newspaper in 1773, three years before Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence.
Washington Irving, writing under the satirical pseudonym “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” advanced the legend. Irving’s 1809 book, “A History of New-York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,” was intended as a Federalist Party send-up of Jefferson. But the satire was largely lost on a mass audience more enthralled by stories of a guardian saint, Nicholas, who slides down chimneys to give children presents at Christmastime.
By 1821 an anonymous poem reaffirmed the gift-giving proclivities of “Santeclaus,” while replacing Thor’s goats with reindeer. Two years later, Clement C. Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” was published. By 1863, America’s preeminent cartoonist and illustrator, Bavarian-born Thomas Nast, was drawing on his native culture to flesh out the images of Santa that dance in our heads to this day.
Today, children are more apt to get their images of Santa Claus from movies than books or newspapers. Adult children, too, if you know what I mean. Meanwhile, adults with children invariably come to realize as their offspring grow from toddlers into young people that a silent conspiracy develops naturally: Kids go on pretending to believe in Santa and his elves out of concern for their parents’ feelings.
Hopefully, this belief in Santa ultimately gives way to a deeper faith in benevolent, often unseen, forces – some religious, some secular – that elevate our spirits in a cruel world. It’s the point of movies ranging from the supernatural (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) to the earthly (“Love, Actually”).
Sometimes Santa himself is doing the heavy lifting. In “Last Christmas,” a 2014 episode of the British science fiction TV series “Doctor Who,” Santa Claus is speaking to a character named Fiona Bellows.
“I have watched over you all your lives,” he says. “I’ve taken care of you from Christmas to Christmas.”
“But you’re not real,” Fiona replies.
“And yet,” Santa answers, “that never stopped me.”