Regardless of how you think of Santa Claus, he does have a history....and an interesting one at that! His early beginning can be traced by as early as 280A.D., in an area called Patara, which is now what we call Turkey. Back then his name was officially St. Nicholas, and legend told of his great kindness. He supposedly inherited a great deal of wealth, and gave it away to the poor and sick around his countryside. Eventually his legend grew to establish him as the protector of children and sailors. Supposedly he died on December 6, and this was the day originally set to celebrate the anniversary of his death. Even after the Reformation, St. Nicholas was revered, and no more so than in Holland.
Fast forward to 1773.......and St. Nicholas began making his debut in the New World. A New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch people were gathering together to celebrate the anniversary of his death. By 1804, St. Nicholas's name had evolved into Sinter Klaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas) to the name we know so well today, Santa Claus. The first known gifts given in America were from John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society. He handed out woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society's annual meeting. The backgrounds of these engravings contained familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace. Then in 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York.
Following is a time line of historically significant influences of Santa Claus here in America:
1620 - The English separatists in America were so orthodox in their Puritan beliefs that from
1659-1681, you were fined five shillings if you celebrated Christmas in Boston. Maybe this is where Ebenezer Scrooge got his beginnings!
In contrast, the settlement of Jamestown actually openly celebrated the season.
1820 - Stores in America began to advertise "Christmas" shopping
1822 - Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas."
1840 - American newspapers began to creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus
1841 - Thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model
Early 1890s - The Salvation Army needed money to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided to needy families. They began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations. Also in the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S.
1914 - During World War I, on and around Christmas Day 1914, the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding faded in a number of places along the Western Front in favor of holiday celebrations in the trenches and gestures of goodwill between enemies.
1931 - The first Christmas tree was erected by construction workers in the center of construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York.
1939 - Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer appeared on the scene! Robert L. May, a copywriter at the
Montgomery Ward department store. He wrote a Christmas-themed story-poem to help bring holiday traffic into his store. Using a similar rhyme pattern to Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas,"
Over the years retailers and people have adapted and capitalized on the spirit of Santa Claus and Christmas. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is the spirit of St. Nicholas.......giving to others in need. Too often we make the mistake of thinking we have to spend, spend, spend to make Christmas meaningful, when in fact, it should be a time of gathering together to celebrate the blessings we each have.
So whether you believe there is a Santa Claus or not, in spirit I think there is.......
and the magic of the season isn't what we call it, but rather what we do with it!
The History Channel has more videos on various facets of Christmas and Santa Claus,
and I've included the link to that page.