Santa Claus is older than you think

Image by Kala Lindsey

It’s that time of year again when the world is full of winter wonderlands, talking snowmen, reindeers with red noses and fairy tales of a large man venturing across the globe to deliver presents to good children.

Most people get so caught up in the holiday cheer that they forget that it’s not really a fairy tale at all. The story of Santa Claus evolved from the accounts of a real person who lived nearly 2,000 years ago.

Saint Nicholas was born in a small village called Patara (which resides in what is now Demre, Turkey) during the third century.

Orphaned at a young age and then raised in a devout Christian family, little Nicholas was presented with an inheritance that he felt was better in the hands of the village’s needy and misfortunate, thus beginning his reputation for generosity. He continued to devote his life to God and eventually was ordained Bishop of Myra.

Many stories were told of his kindness that may or may not be true. According to, a non-profit organization created by two friends who were consumed by the story of St. Nicholas and the life he led, the most popular story is one of a poor man who had three daughters. Back in those days, a young woman was given a dowry, which included anything from money to animals to land, at her marriage.

“Since the man in this story was poor, he was unable to give his daughters anything without sacrificing the family’s livelihood. When Saint Nicholas saw that the daughters were going to be forced into prostitution to earn their own money, he gathered up his own gold and small goods in a sack and anonymously left it at the family’s door,” the organization’s cofounder, Carol Myers, wrote on its website.

The youngest daughter saw Saint Nicholas do this from a window and told her father, who spread the word of the Bishop’s generosity and how he saved his daughters’ lives.

During this time, there was also a religious conflict in Europe. Under Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians such as Saint Nicholas were imprisoned and exiled unless they converted to traditional Roman beliefs of polytheism.

Christianity was later accepted in the year 313 A.D. under Emperor Constantine the Great, and those once persecuted were released. Once Nicholas was freed, he became a part of the Council of Nicaea, a council of bishops that helped laid the foundation of Christian doctrine. He died twenty years later on Dec. 6, 343 A.D.

December 6 became Saint Nicholas Day, which celebrated his life and ways of generosity, encouraging people and teaching children to exchange gifts and help those in need.

After the Protestant Reformation was over in 1648, this became problematic. Since the celebration of Nicholas was the same month as Christmas, it took away some of the attention meant to honor Jesus.

However, because Saint Nicholas’s way of life had been celebrated for so many years, the Catholic and Protestant churches couldn’t simply get rid of the holiday altogether, so the date was moved to December 25 to share Christmas.

Once the celebration of the Saint made its way across Europe, its meaning began to evolve and mix with other cultures and their beliefs.

In Germany, the Saint’s intent of generosity became a tool to create scary characters that would encourage children to behave or they would be punished. These characters ranged from Ru-Klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas) and Pelznickle (Furry Nicholas) who forced children to endure whipping or kidnapping. The most terrifying character of all was Krampus.

According to an article written by Liz Leafloor on, a website dedicated to the public education of the history and backgrounds of worldly legends and myths, Krampus is a devil-like goat man with fur, horns, hooves and a lizard’s tongue.

“He would punish the kids deemed bad by Santa by beating them with bundles of birch and then throw them into his sack and dragged to his underworld home in hell for a year,” Leafloor wrote.

Though the evil character is supposed to be a Germanic sidekick to Santa, the origin of this myth is said to be as old as the Bishop himself.

In Great Britain, Nicholas is known as Father Christmas. In France, he’s Père Noel (translated to Father Christmas). And in the Netherlands, he’s known as Sinterklaas. Places like the Czech Republic, Austria and Latin American countries kept to their anti-Santa characters to preserve their nation’s traditions.

When the Soviet Union was formed during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the celebration of Santa was abolished because it was related too closely to a religion, which wasn’t allowed.

In 1924, under the rule of Joseph Stalin, a new character–Father Frost–was developed to gain the appreciation and favor of the people. Frost was dressed in a blue coat and was skinny in stature to avoid any confusion with Santa.

When Europeans made their way to the Americas, Sinterklaas became more widely known and eventually who didn’t fly or live in the North Pole.

According to, it wasn’t until 1809 when Washington Irving wrote a book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, describing a pipe-smoking man who flew over rooftops in a wagon delivering toys to good boys and switches to bad ones, that the Santa Claus we celebrate today began to take shape.

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit from Saint Nick also known as The Night Before Christmas for his children, with no intention of including Santa. Yet the book was published featuring the jolly guy flying in a sleigh driven by eight familiar reindeer.

Rudolph wasn’t a popular addition to the tale of Santa until the hit song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” written by Johnny Marks and sung by Gene Autry, became the number one hit in America the week of Christmas 1949.

Danielle Prat, a WCC first year student, wasn’t raised with Santa Claus coming every Christmas but was rather just made aware of his existence to avoid confusion with what other children were being taught.

“I’m sure it’ll be a discussion to have with my significant other at the time, but my opinion right now is I don’t see any reason to teach my children about it,” she said. “But if I were to teach them about either Santa or Saint Nick, I’d probably go with Santa because to me the real guy is more of a religious symbol than anything.”

WCC student Claudia Cedillo said she is planning on carrying on the tradition of the fictional Santa Claus.

“It’s interesting to question not the validity but the origin of such a praised figure of this time of year,” she said.

Whether you celebrate Saint Nick or not, he has definitely made an impact on the world and how we celebrate this time of year. So remember Saint Nicholas and his life of generosity as you go about your holiday shopping this year.


by Hannah Bailey, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter