The Legend of Santa

Santa Claus is a round, happy man (sometimes depicted as an elf) who brings good cheer and gifts to children throughout the world on Christmas Eve. Santa dresses in a red furry suit (because, of course, he lives at the North Pole), and he drives a sleigh which flies through the air drawn by nine reindeer. (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner (also known as Donder), Blitzen, and of course the latecomer Rudolph!) Santa lands on the roof of each home and then enters by sliding down the chimney where he leaves presents under the Christmas tree and fills each child's stocking with goodies.

The Roots of Santa Claus

Although there are no historical documents available to verify a "real" Santa Claus, according to tradition, a boy named Nicholas was born between 255 and 257 A.D. in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara. Nicholas' family was wealthy, and he traveled throughout Palestine and Egypt. Nicholas' parents died while he was fairly young, and left him very wealthy. Nicholas was a very religious and devoted man, and he decided that the best use of his money was to share it with others.

Many stories have been told about Nicholas, but one of the most famous is that as a young man, he heard about an honorable family with three daughters. Unfortunately, this family was poor. In those times, a girl who did not have a dowry would be unable to marry, and Nicholas heard that the father was going to have to send his daughters to a "brothel" to become prostitutes. When Nicholas heard of this terrible problem and the plight that the girls were in, he made up his mind to help the family. Legend tells us that as each girl reached the age when she needed her dowry, that Nicholas tossed a bag of gold through the family's window during the cover of night. Each bag was just right to pay for the dowry of the girl!

Nicholas was appointed as bishop of Myra; however, he was soon imprisoned by the Roman Emperor Diocletian who persecuted Christians. When Constantine the Great became Emperor, he released Nicholas. Nicholas had a reputation for being very generous and very kind, and was known for coming to the aid of people in need. Stories were told of Nicholas saving sailors lost in storms, rescuing children and giving gifts to the poor. When Nicholas died, he was buried in his church of Myra. Many miracles were attributed to Nicholas, and he was soon designated as Saint Nicholas.

The Legend Grows

During the middle ages, thousands of churches were dedicated to St. Nicholas. His legend was told everywhere, and St. Nicholas became an extremely popular story among liturgical plays. St. Nicholas' was famous throughout Europe and the stories told about him were always as a "bringer of gifts."

An anonymous Greek wrote in the tenth century that, "the West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the furthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. Images of him are set up, panegyrics preached and festivals celebrated. All Christians, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, reverence his memory and call upon his protection. And his favors, which know no limit of time and continue from age to age, are poured out over all the earth; the Scythians know them, as do the Indians and the barbarians, the Africans as well as the Italians." (Catholic Online Saints)

The feast day of Saint Nicholas was December 6th, but after the Reformation, German Protestants celebrated the Christkindl (Christ Child) on his feast day, December 25th. Although the Christ Child was very revered, people did not want to give up such a popular hero as St. Nicholas. We now celebrate the Christ child and St. Nicholas together on December 25th. Because the information regarding St. Nicholas was mostly undocumented and is largely through tradition rather than known facts, "Saint" Nicholas was dropped from the official Roman Catholic calendar in 1969. However, he remains a favorite among many Catholic Christians.

Saint Nicholas remained popular in Europe throughout the centuries. He was known by a variety of names including Sankt Nikolaus in Germany and Sanct Herr Nicholaas or Sinter Klaas in Holland. Often the stories of Saint Nicholas included stories of him riding through the sky on a horse. He was said to wear bishop robes and was accompanied by an elf named "Black Peter." Black Peter's job was to "whip naughty children." (Encarta)

Santa Claus Arrives in America

The Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (now known as New York City) brought their traditions to the new world, including their celebration of "Sinter Klass." In 1773, the American newspapers reported about this Sinter Klass, spelling it as "St. A Claus." Thus, St. Nicholas began making the transition to the more Americanized name of "Santa Claus."

St. Nicholas would become even more popular when Washington Irving (under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker) published his "History of New York" in 1809 (also known as "The Knickbocker History of New York" and described St. Nicholas arriving on horseback.

Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" which most people know by the name "The Night Before Christmas" in 1823. Moore described Saint Nicholas in detail, including his laughs, his wink, his nod, how he came down and returned through the chimney and described him as an elf.
"A Visit from Saint Nicholas"

Thomas Nast, an illustrator, drew pictures of St. Nicholas for Harper's Magazine from the 1860's through the 1880's. Nast added Santa's list of good and bad children and the toyshop at the North Pole.

A Coca-Cola ad created by artist Haddon Sundblom appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931 depicting Santa as round, human-sized, rather than the elf described by Clement Moore, and grandfatherly. Read a great History of Santa Claus

Montgomery Ward Company's advertising copywriter Robert L. May created Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, complete with his red, shiny nose in 1939. Songwrite Johnny Marks was May's brother-in-law, and he took the story and developed lyrics and melody for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Does Santa Claus exist?

In 1897, an eight year old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon was told by other children that there was no Santa Claus. She asked her father if Santa Claus really existed, but when her father tried to avoid the question, she decided to find someone who could tell her! Whenever their family had a question they couldn't answer, they wrote to their newspaper "The New York Sun," and asked for the answer. So little Virginia said, "Well, I'm just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth,' Her father replied: "Go ahead, Virginia. I'm sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does."

The little girl's letter was mailed and came to the desk of one of the Sun's Editors, Francis P. Church. Mr. Church knew that he needed to answer the little girl's question truthfully. His answer would become one of the most famous editorials in American history! Mr. Church answered with "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Read the original letter!

Additional Resources

"St. Nicholas"    Catholic Online Saints

Nicholas, Saint    Encyclopaedia Britannica (

Santa Claus    Jan Harold Brunvand, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Professor of English, University of Utah. Author of The Study of American Folklore and other books. Author of syndicated newspaper column Urban Legends.
"Santa Claus," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

St. Nicholas of Myra    in the New Advent
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI
Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York