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Saint Nicolas To Santa Claus, A History

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Santa is an ancient and familiar part of the Christmas celebration. He got his start as a 4th century Bishop; St. Nicolas of Asia Minor.


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U.S. Department of Agriculture Historian, Anne Effland, says over the centuries the legend of St. Nic has blurred.

“The legend is that he was a patron of children. He’s also the patron saint of sailors. And although many different cultures have a Santa Claus figure or have adopted St. Nicolas and his traditions, it was the Dutch who really created the Santa Claus that we know in America.”

The St. Nic of Dutch origin didn’t have any reindeer, rather he had a donkey. Dutch children put their wooden shoes by the fire, filled with straw, to feed the donkey and in turn St Nic left a gift. Once the Dutch moved to New Amsterdam, or what is now New York, Effland says they changed the shoes to stockings. They also shortened the saint’s name, “and they shortened it to Sinta Claus and that’s where Santa Claus comes from in the American English.”

The current form of Santa Claus in the U.S. is a mixture of many counties traditions, but he was really given life in 1923 with Dr. Clement Clark Moore’s poem, The Night Before Christmas.

“It includes a lot of the Reindeer on the roof and the stockings by the hearth and all the bits and pieces that we associate with the Santa Claus legend.”

The image of Santa continued to evolve through the 20th century with the drawings of commerical artists and the embellishments of the North Pole as his home, letters from children and the tracking of behavior followed. According to Effland the most recent changes came through the Coca Cola Company where they aged him and fattened him up.

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