Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus

Bishop Nicholas, Knickerbocker Santa, and Santa Claus
Bishop St. Nicholas, early American St. Nick, & American Santa, from Santa Claus Comes to America, by Caroline Singer & Cyrus Baldridge, Alfred Knopf, 1942
Dutch family waiting for Sinterklaas
"New Year's Hymn to St. Nicholas," colonial Dutch life, Albany, NY. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, March 1881
St. Nicholas Center Collection

How did the kindly Christian saint, good Bishop Nicholas, become a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for merry holiday festivity and commercial activity? History tells the tale.

The first Europeans to arrive in the New World brought St. Nicholas. Vikings dedicated their cathedral to him in Greenland. On his first voyage, Columbus named a Haitian port for St. Nicholas on December 6, 1492. In Florida, Spaniards named an early settlement St. Nicholas Ferry, now the St. Nicholas neighborhood in Jacksonville. However, St. Nicholas had a difficult time during the 16th century Protestant Reformation which took a dim view of saints. Even though both reformers and counter-reformers tried to stamp out St. Nicholas-related customs, they had very little long-term success except in England where the religious folk traditions were permanently altered. (It is ironic that fervent Puritan Christians began what turned into a trend to a more secular Christmas observance.) Because the common people so loved St. Nicholas, he survived on the European continent as people continued to place nuts, apples, and sweets in shoes left beside beds, on windowsills, or before the hearth.

The first Colonists, primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, did not bring Nicholas traditions to the New World. What about the Dutch? Although it is almost universally believed that the Dutch brought St. Nicholas to New Amsterdam, scholars find scant evidence of such traditions in Dutch New Netherland. Colonial Germans in Pennsylvania kept the feast of St. Nicholas, and several later accounts have St. Nicholas visiting New York Dutch on New Years' Eve, thus adopting the English custom (New Year gift-giving had become the English custom in 1558, supplanting Nicholas, and this English custom lasted in New York until 1847).

In 1773 New York non-Dutch patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas 1, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas. This society was similar to the Sons of St. Tammany in Philadelphia. Not exactly St. Nicholas, the children's gift-giver.

Eastern bishop with beehive and dog
Detail from broadside by Alexander Anderson, December 6, 1810
St Nicholas Center Collection
After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony's nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker's History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving's work was regarded as the "first notable work of imagination in the New World."

The New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810. John Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of Nicholas for the occasion. Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children's treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace. The accompanying poem ends, "Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend! To serve you ever was my end, If you will, now, me something give, I'll serve you ever while I live."

The 19th century was a time of cultural transition. New York writers, and others, wanted to domesticate the Christmas holiday. After Puritans and other Calvinists had eliminated Christmas as a holy season, popular celebrations became riotous, featuring drunken men and public disorder. Christmas of old was not the images we imagine of families gathered cozily around hearth and tree exchanging pretty gifts and singing carols while smiling benevolently at children. Rather, it was characterized by raucous, drunken mobs roaming streets, damaging property, threatening and frightening the upper classes. The holiday season, coming after harvest when work was eased and more leisure possible, was a time when workers and servants took the upper hand, demanding largess and more. Through the first half of the 19th century, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and other Protestants continued to regard December 25th as a day without religious significance, a day for normal business. This was not a neutral stance, rather Christmas observance was seen as inconsistent with gospel worship. Industrialists were happy to reduce workers' leisure time and allowed many fewer holidays than existed in Europe.

All of this began to change as a new understanding of family life and the place of children was emerging. Childhood was coming to be seen as a stage of life in which greater protection, sheltering, training and education were needed. And so the season came gradually to be tamed, turning toward shops and home. St. Nicholas, too, took on new attributes to fit the changing times.

Sante Claus in sleigh
Sante Claus
The Children's Friend, 1821
William B. Gilley, publisher

1821 brought some new elements with publication of the first lithographed book in America, the Children's Friend. This "Sante Claus" arrived from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. The anonymous poem and illustrations proved pivotal in shifting imagery away from a saintly bishop. Sante Claus fit a didactic mode, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, leaving a "long, black birchen rod … directs a Parent's hand to use when virtue's path his sons refuse." Gifts were safe toys, "pretty doll … peg-top, or a ball; no crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets to blow their eyes up, or their pockets. No drums to stun their Mother's ear, nor swords to make their sisters fear; but pretty books to store their mind with knowledge of each various kind." The sleigh itself even sported a bookshelf for the "pretty books." The book also notably marked S. Claus' first appearance on Christmas Eve, rather than December 6th.

The jolly elf image received another big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," now better known as "The Night Before Christmas."

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf… .
Santa in knickers, climbing in chimney
T. C. Boyd
A Visit from Saint Nicholas
Facsimile, St Nicholas Center Collection
Santa head with pipe
F. O. C. Darley
A Visit from Saint Nicholas
St Nicholas Center Collection
Small elf-like Santa
ca 1869
Thomas Nast
Santa Claus and his Works
First red suit for a Nast Santa
St Nicholas Center Collection

Washington Irving's St. Nicholas strongly influenced the poem's portrayal of a round, pipe-smoking, elf-like St. Nicholas. The poem generally has been attributed to Clement Clark Moore, a professor of biblical languages at New York's Episcopal General Theological Seminary. Moore was a friend and neighbor of William Gilley, who had published Sancte Claus in 1821:

Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives the frosty night
O'er chimney tops and tracks of snow
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

However, a case has been made by Don Foster in Author Unknown, that Henry Livingston actually penned it in 1807 or 1808. Livingston was a farmer/patriot who wrote humorous verse for children. In any case, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" became a defining American holiday classic. No matter who wrote it, the poem has had enormous influence on the Americanization of St. Nicholas.

Larger Santa
Thomas Nast
Harper's Weekly
January 1, 1881
Val Berryman Collection
Santa in red suit, filling bag
Carl Stetson Crawford
St. Nicholas for Young Folks
Vol. XXXIII, No. 2
St Nicholas Center Collection
Santa in red suit, peeking in window
E. Boyd Smith
Santa Claus and All About Him

The New York elite succeeded in domesticating Christmas through a new "Santa Claus" tradition invented by Washington Irving, John Pintard and Clement Clarke Moore. Moore's poem was printed in four new almanacs in 1824, just one year after it was in the Troy, New York, paper. The poem and other descriptions of the Santa Claus ritual appeared in more and more local papers. More than anything else, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" introduced the custom of a cozy, domestic Santa Christmas tradition to the nation.

Other artists and writers continued the change to an elf-like St. Nicholas, "Sancte Claus," or "Santa Claus," unlike the stately European bishop. In 1863, during the Civil War, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual black-and-white drawings in Harper's Weekly, based on the descriptions found in the poem and Washington Irving's work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. Nast's Santa supported the Union and President Lincoln believed this contributed to the Union troops' success by demoralizing Confederate soldiers. As Nast drew Santas until 1886, his work had considerable influence in forming the American Santa Claus. Along with appearance changes, the saint's name shifted to Santa Claus—a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus.

Churches, influenced by German immigrants who loved Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, the Oxford Movement in the Anglican church, and church musicians embracing carol singing, began to bring Christmas observances into their lives. The growth of Sunday Schools in cities exposed hundreds of thousands of children to Christianity. Initially opposed to Christmas observance, by the 1850s Sunday Schools had discovered that a Christmas tree, Santa and gifts, greatly improved attendance. So, in a strange twist of fate, the new "secular" Santa Claus, no longer seen as a religious figure, helped return Christmas observance to churches.

Santa going over list
Norman Rockwell
Saturday Evening Post
December 2, 1922
Michigan State University Museum
Used by permission
Santa in fur-trimmed red suit
N. C. Wyeth
Old Kris
The Country Gentleman

Print: St Nicholas Center Collection
Jolly Santa with girl and large bag
J. C. Leyendecker
Saturday Evening Post
December 26, 1925
Michigan State University Museum
Used by permission

Santa was then portrayed by dozens of artists in a wide variety of styles, sizes, and colors. However by the end of the 1920s, a standard American Santa—life-sized in a red, fur-trimmed suit—had emerged from the work of N. C. Wyeth, J. C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell and other popular illustrators. The image was solidified before Haddon Sundblom, in 1931, began thirty-five years of Coca-Cola Santa advertisements that further popularized and firmly established this Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture.

Jolly Santa with Coke
Haddon Sundblom
First Coca-Cola Santa
Permission courtesy of the Coca-Cola Company
Santa and map, studying list
Norman Rockwell
Saturday Evening Post
December 16, 1939
Print: St Nicholas Center Collection
Standing Santa with Coke
Haddon Sundblom
Time December 12, 1955 St Nicholas Center Collection

This Santa was life-sized, jolly, and wore the now familiar red suit. He appeared in magazines, on billboards, and shop counters, encouraging Americans to see Coke as the solution to "a thirst for all seasons." By the 1950s Santa was turning up everywhere as a benign source of beneficence, endorsing an amazing range of consumer products. This commercial success led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world where he threatens to overcome the European St. Nicholas, who has retained his identity as a Christian bishop and saint.

Nast Santa, St Nicholas, Coke Santa
Nast Santa, Bishop Nicholas, Coke Santa, illustration by Renee Graef, A Special Place for Santa Roman, Inc., 1991. Permission pending.

It's been a long journey from the Fourth Century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, who showed his devotion to God in extraordinary kindness and generosity to those in need, to America's jolly Santa Claus, whose largesse often supplies luxuries to the affluent. However, if you peel back the accretions, he is still Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness.

There is growing interest in reclaiming the original saint in the United States to help restore a spiritual dimension to this festive time. For indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christians are meant to live. A bishop, Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the center of his life, his ministry, his entire existence. Families, churches, and schools are embracing true St Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true center of Christmas—the birth of Jesus. Such a focus helps restore balance to increasingly materialistic and stress-filled Advent and Christmas seasons.

From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: An Interview
An interview with Gerry Bowler, author of Santa Claus: A Biography
How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus: One Theory
An interview with Jeremy Seal, author of Nicholas: the Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus
St. Nicholas in New York—1810
The story of the first St. Nicholas illustration in the US
Knickerbocker Santa Claus
Scholar Charles W. Jones recounts the evidence telling how Santa Claus was created in 19th century New York
Flemish Sinterklaas Influence in "Nieuw Nederland" 
Not everyone in the Dutch colonies was Dutch
Meet the Man Behind the Beard 
Bishop Michael Curry interviews Santa Claus
Father Christmas 
Is he the same as Santa Claus?
A Very Not-So-Merry Christmas: How Protestantism Nearly Killed St. Nick
How the Reformation changed Saint Nicholas traditions
Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan
Book Review in Theology Today

More in other sections

St. Nicholas and American Christmas Customs
Which American holiday traditions reflect distinctive St. Nicholas characteristics?
St. Nicholas Timeline
See St. Nicholas through the centuries, including Santa
1902 Santa in Chicago 
How has Santa changed?

1. "The first surviving mention of [Nicholas] in America is in the New York Rivington's Gazetteer for 23 December 1773: 'Last Monday the anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. a Claus, was celebrated at Protestant Hall, at Mr. Waldron’s, where a great number of the sons of that ancient saint celebrated the day with great joy and festivity.' And on 8 December 1774 in the same journal: 'Monday next, being the anniversary of St. Nicholas, will be celebrated by the descendants of the ancient Dutch families.' These two are the only survivors until well after the Revolution. These "sons' of Saint Nicholas seem not to have known their father's birthday." Charles W. Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend, p. 333.


NPR: The Story of St. Nicholas an interview with Jeremy Seal by Renee Montagne, Morning Edition, December 23, 2005
How Santa Saved N.Y. by Michael Grady, Tribune columnist, East Valley Tribune, Phoenix, December 15, 2007. A good summary of how Christmas changed and Santa Claus came to be in the 19th century.
St. Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus by Brian Handwerk, for National Geographic, December 20, 2013. A fine account of the development of Santa Claus (click "register later" to read the article).
Why Children Get Gifts on Christmas: A History by Paul Ringel, The Atlantic, December 25, 2015.
Santa Claus' New York City Roots Explored in Museum Exhibit by Dartunorro Clark, November 29, 2016
Why Putting Christ Back in Christmas Is Not Enough by W. David O. Taylor, Christianity Today, December 17, 2018
How America captured Christmas by historian George Goodwin, HistoryExtra, the BBC History Magazine, December 4, 2019.
Who Was That Poet, Anyway? by Don Foster, The Washington Post, December 24, 2000
Today's Santa Claus is rooted in American mythology, by M.A. Davis, Washington Post, December 23, 2022

Rotating images: Luca Brühart, Musée d'art et d'histoire, Fribourg, Switzerland. Used by permission.

Sources and further reading:

Bowler, Gerry, Santa Claus: A Biography McClelland & Stewart Ltd, Toronto, 2005
Carefully researched account uses history, literature, advertising, and art to show development of the American Santa; primarily about Santa

Purchase from, or

Christoph, Peter R., "Saint Nicholas," The Encyclopedia of New York State, Sample Entries

Felix Octavius Carr Darley Website

Elliott, Jock, Inventing Christmas: How our Holiday Came to Be Abrams, New York, 2001
Generously illustrated large format easy-to-read account of how American Christmas developed.

Purchase from, or

"A Glimpse of an Old Dutch Town," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Harper and Brothers, New York, Vol. 62, Number 370, March 1881.

Hageman, Howard, Book review: Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend by Charles W. Jones, Theology Today, October 1979

Jones, Charles W., "Knickerbocker Santa Claus,"The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Volume XXXVIII Number 4, October 1954

Nissenbaum, Stephen, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday Vintage, Random House, New York, 1996
This social history chronicles the transition from a raucous, carnival holiday with drunkenness and riot into a warm, domesticated family and consumer-centered festival.

Purchase from, or

Seal, Jeremy, Nicholas: The epic journey from Saint to Santa Claus Bloomsbury, New York & London, 2005; UK edition: Santa: A Life
Nicholas' transformation into Santa told through careful historical detail, travelogue, and personal reflection; extensive material on Nicholas as Saint, as well as Santa

Purchase from, or

Walsh, Joseph J., Were They Wise Men or Kings, Joseph J. Walsh, Westminster John Knox, 2001
Short chapters present a wealth of information on Christmas traditions, answering many common questions

Purchase from, or

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