Loved by children all over the world, Santa Claus is perhaps the world’s best-known mythical figure. But who provided the inspiration for the legend of Santa Claus? And how did the legendary red-robed man become associated with the North Pole?
The Real Santa Claus
While Santa Claus is not real, the historical figure he is based on most certainly was.
Saint Nicholas of Myra is the basis for the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas or Sint-Nicolaas. Dutch immigrants to the United States brought that tradition with them. After some roundabout anglicisation, it birthed the Santa Claus we know and love today.
The man who would become the foundation for Santa Claus was born in the third century in the Mediterranean port city of Patara – part of the Roman Empire – in what is now Turkey.
Saint Nicholas was a devout man, becoming a priest and subsequently the Bishop of Myra. He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers, students and children. Some credit his popularity to sailors who spread tales of his great deeds in every port they visited.
Born into a wealthy Greek Christian family, Saint Nicholas is said to have distributed much of his wealth to the poor and needy after his parents passed away. This earned him a reputation for charity and gift-giving, a cornerstone of the Santa Claus legend.
The most famous of his charitable acts involves a devout father of three daughters. The father had once been wealthy, but due to the ‘plotting and envy of Satan’ had fallen on hard times.
As a result of his financial woes the father could not afford to pay dowries for his daughters. This meant they were unable to be married and were likely to be forced into prostitution to survive.
Saint Nicholas heard of the family’s plight and secretly visited the man’s house three nights in a row. Each night he threw a bag of gold through the window – one bag of gold for each daughter.
On the last night the father lay in wait to see who the mysterious benefactor was and caught Saint Nicholas in the act. He prostrated himself before Nicholas and thanked him for saving his daughters.
Saint Nicholas swore the man to secrecy but word of his charitable nature spread regardless. This story has since become one of the most popular to depict in Christian devotional art.
North Pole Origins
Much of the modern image of Santa Claus is owed to the work of political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Nast was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States with his family at a young age. He was caricaturist of some renown and among his storied portfolio are iconic Christmas illustrations he drew for Harper’s Weekly magazine in the mid- to late-1800s.
Before Nast, depictions of Santa Claus varied from region to region. During this pre-Nast period one illustration in Harper’s Weekly depicted a beardless Santa with a sleigh pulled by a turkey.
Nast standardised the image of the jovial, rotund man in fur-lined red robes and is credited with introducing the concept of Santa hand-making toys in a workshop at the North Pole.
In Nast’s time the North Pole was still unexplored. Although expeditions had set out to navigate the Northwest Passage in the North American Arctic, no one had yet ventured to the pole. It represented a remote, fantastical place.
This unexplored remoteness, combined with the trend for publishers in the US to use snow in their Christmas imagery, made the always-snowy North Pole the perfect location for Santa’s workshop. Nast first depicted this in his 1866 work ‘Santa Claus and his Works’ which read ‘Santa Classville, N.P.’
It would be nearly 50 years after his illustration was published that the first claim of reaching the North Pole could be made.
Thankfully, exploration of the North Pole has done nothing to diminish the popularity of Santa Claus.
And while there is a common misconception that the modern iteration of the jolly toy maker is a commercial invention, it is simply the latest in a long line of traditions that date back to a man who lived more than a millennium and a half ago.
We at DCODE would like to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and hope that you enjoy the festive season as Santa would.