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History of Santa Claus
The progenitor of the modern American Santa was born in the Mediterranean during the Roman Empire, his legend evolved across northern Europe, and he finally assumed his now-familiar form on the shores of the New World. Who is this ancestor of Santa, and how did he change over time?
Every December 6, the faithful celebrate St. Nicholas Day in cities all over the world, with the largest ones taking place in Europe. How did this St. Nicholas turn into the North Pole-dwelling bringer of Christmas gifts? The original saint was a Greek born in the late third century, around 280 A.D. He became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly but developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the Great Persecution in 303, when Bibles were burned and priests made to renounce Christianity or face execution.
Nicholas defied these edicts and spent years in prison before the Roman emperor Constantine ended Christian persecution in 313 with the Edict of Milan. Nicholas’s fame lived long after his death (on December 6 in the mid-fourth century, around 343) because he was associated with many miracles, and reverence for him continues to this day independent of his Christmas connection. He is the protector of many types of people, from orphans to sailors to prisoners.
In the better-known tale, three young girls are saved from a life of prostitution when young Bishop Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to their indebted father, which can be used for their dowries.
“The other story is not so well known now but was enormously well known in the Middle Ages,” Bowler said. Nicholas entered an inn whose keeper had just murdered three boys and pickled their dismembered bodies in basement barrels. The bishop not only sensed the crime, but resurrected the victims as well. “That’s one of the things that made him the patron saint of children.”
For several hundred years, circa 1200 to 1500, St. Nicholas was the unchallenged bringer of gifts and the toast of celebrations centered around his feast day, December 6. The strict saint took on some aspects of earlier European deities, like the Roman Saturn or the Norse Odin, who appeared as white-bearded men and had magical powers like flight. He also ensured that kids toed the line by saying their prayers and practicing good behavior.
But after the Protestant Rebellion began in the 1500s, saints like Nicholas fell out of favor across much of northern Europe. “That was problematic,” Bowler said. “You still love your kids, but now who is going to bring them the gifts?”
Bowler said that, in many cases, that job fell to baby Jesus, and the date was moved to Christmas rather than December 6. “But the infant’s carrying capacity is very limited, and he’s not very scary either,” Bowler said. “So the Christ child was often given a scary helper to do the lugging of presents and the threatening of kids that doesn’t seem appropriate coming from the baby Jesus.”
Some of these scary Germanic figures again were based on Nicholas, no longer as a saint but as a threatening sidekick like Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas). These figures expected good behavior or forced children to suffer consequences like whippings or kidnappings. Dissimilar as they seem to the jolly man in red, these colorful characters would later figure in the development of Santa himself.