Growing up, you were probably told that a jolly fat man with a candy cane pantsuit and a fluffy snow-white beard would deliver you gifts in the wake of Christmas Night. You were told about his love for gingerbread cookies and chocolate milk, of his flying reindeer, and his sleigh. Well, there’s a lot more to Santa Claus than you might have learned. Here’s the full story.
St. Nicholas was a dedicated bishop who lived in Myra—now known as Turkey—famous for his kindness and generosity. After being passed a large inheritance, he used the money to anonymously buy gifts for those in need. Allegedly, of these people was a poor man with three daughters, for whom St. Nick would secretly drop bags of gold down the chimney. The gold would then fall into the man’s stockings, which hung over the fire to dry. This is supposedly how the secret gift of Santa and the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace first started.
How St. Nick Became Santa Claus
Because of St. Nicholas’s kindness, he was made a saint—the Saint of Children. Because Christmas is such a magical time of year, especially for children, this saint of children became a hero to kids, far and wide. Eventually Nicholas was vaguely referred to as “Father Christmas”; in some European countries, he was called “Old Man Christmas”; and in France he was known as 'Père Nöel'. In the United States , his name was originally Kris Kringle, and later Sinterklaas—when the Dutch settlers titled him—which we now call “Santa Claus.”
Santa Claus Today
Many countries still honor St. Nicholas Day, on December 6th each year. (While it’s still honoring the man we know as Santa, very few people know that the figures are synonymous.) On December 5, households will leave out their shoes (and clogs in Holland), waiting for them to be filled with gifts the following day.
St. Nick became exceptionally popular during the Victorian era, when poets and artists rediscovered the ancient stories. In 1823, the famous “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” poem was published—describing the eight reindeer we know today as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. These reindeer names were made increasingly famous with the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, written in 1949.
Most popularly, Santa Claus (also St. Nick) is celebrated during the entire month of Christmas—especially on Christmas Eve, when children eagerly await his gift-bearing arrival. To prepare for the holiday season, most of us read bedtime stories like “The Polar Express” and go Christmas caroling with loved ones. We bake pies, marinate steaks, and wrap gifts in tinsel. We wear ugly sweaters and hang lights and decorate trees. And of course, we remember to leave an extra plate of cookies for Mr. Claus.