Legend has it that Santa Claus, the traditional Christmas patron in the United States and other countries, travels the world delivering gifts to good little boys and girls. His modern likeness originates from legends about Saint Nicholas, a Christian saint who lived in the fourth century. In several European countries, this duty is played by Father Christmas.
It was the Dutch that brought the story of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and the tradition of presenting gifts and sweets to youngsters on his feast day, December 6, to New Amsterdam (now New York City).
From 1863 onward, cartoonist Thomas Nast’s illustrations for Harper’s Weekly provided the basis for the popular picture of Santa Claus. The 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” widely known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” provided significant inspiration for Thomas Nast’s depiction of Santa Claus.
From 1931 on, illustrator Haddon Sundblum’s iconic Santa Claus ads for the Coca-Cola Company helped solidify the character’s iconic status. Santa in Sundblum’s version was a round man with a white beard, dressed in a red coat with a black belt and white fur trim, black boots, and a soft red cap.
Santa Claus and his wife are reported to reside at the North Pole, where they spend most of the year in toy production.
There, kids write him letters requesting presents for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Santa fills his sleigh with gifts for all the children in the world and flies around the globe, pulled by eight reindeer, stopping at each child’s home. He then slides down the chimney, drops off the gifts, and has a snack of milk and cookies put out for him.
A Visit from St. Nicholas
“Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” and “A Visit from St. Nicholas” are all common nicknames for a narrative poem that was first published anonymously in the Troy (New York) Sentinel on December 23, 1823.
As a result of its widespread popularity, the tale of Santa Claus and the saint who is traditionally considered the patron of Christmas, Nicholas, were inextricably intertwined.
Santa Claus visits the house of the narrator in this poem, which is set on Christmas Eve. The first sentences establish the context:
On the eve of Christmas, everyone in the house was singing, “‘Twas the night before Christmas.
The place was so quiet that not even a mouse could be heard;
With great care, stockings were strung beside the fireplace.
With the anticipation that Saint Nicholas will arrive shortly.
St. Nicholas’s portrayal in this poem was crucial in cementing his place in American Christmas culture as the jolly, stocky, toy-giving Santa Claus we know and love today.
The names of the eight reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh—Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixem—have likewise survived, more or less unaltered, throughout Christmas tradition.
When “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in Clement Clarke Moore’s Poems, Moore asserted authorship of the work (1844). He claimed he wrote it for his kids in 1822 for Christmas.
The family of Henry Livingston, Jr., a soldier, landowner, and poet who passed away in 1828, challenged Moore’s claim after the publication of Moore’s Poems, maintaining that the poem actually belonged to Livingston.
Although there is no physical proof that Livingston wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a computer-assisted textual analysis conducted in the early 21st century found that the poem has more in common with Livingston’s poetry than Moore’s.
One of the most widely celebrated minor saints in both the Eastern and Western churches, St. Nicholas is also known by the names Nicholas of Bari and Nicholas of Myra. He lived in the fourth century in Myra, Lycia, Asia Minor (near modern Demre, Turkey), and his feast day is celebrated on December 6 in the West and on December 19 in the East.
On St. Nicholas Day, which is celebrated on December 6th, children all across the world receive gifts. Both kids and sailors can thank him for his intercession.
No historical record exists to confirm Nicholas’s existence; all we can say for sure is that he was a bishop in the city of Myra somewhere around the fourth century. His origins are said to be in the Lycian coastal city of Patara, and as a young man, he made his way to Palestine and Egypt.
Upon his return to Lycia, he quickly rose to the position of bishop of Myra. When the Roman Emperor Diocletian persecuted Christians, he was arrested and perhaps tortured, but he was eventually freed by Constantine the Great. He may have attended the first Council of Nicaea (325), where he allegedly punched the heretic, Arius, in the face.
His tomb in the church he founded in Myra became a popular pilgrimage site by the sixth century. His purported remains were stolen from Myra in 1087 by Italian sailors or merchants and relocated to Bari, Italy, where they became the focus of one of Europe’s busiest pilgrimage sites.
Nicholas’s relics remain preserved in the 11th-century basilica of San Nicola at Bari, while portions have been collected by churches around the world. In 2017, scientists determined that a hip bone fragment housed in a church in the United States dated back to the fourth century, making it one of the oldest relics ever discovered.
The traditions of Nicholas’s miracles for the destitute and downtrodden grew out of his reputation for charity and goodwill. He supposedly revived three children whose bodies had been sliced up by a butcher and placed in a vat of brine, and he gave marriage dowries of gold to three females whose poverty would have otherwise pushed them into lives of prostitution.
Nicholas was a popular saint across Medieval Europe. He was canonized as the patron saint of children, seafarers, single women, merchants, pawnbrokers, the city of Fribourg in Switzerland, and the countries of Russia and Greece.
The Roman Emperor Justinian I erected a church in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in his honor in the sixth century, and since then tens of thousands more have been built across Europe in his honor.
The miracles of St. Nicholas were often depicted in medieval art and liturgical dramas, and his feast day was the occasion for the rites of the Boy Bishop, a common European custom in which a young boy was elected bishop and reigned until Holy Innocents’ Day (December 28).
After the Reformation, devotion to Nicholas diminished in all the Protestant countries of Europe save Holland, where his legend lingered as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variation of the name St. Nicholas) (a Dutch variant of the name St. Nicholas).
In the 17th century, when the Dutch established New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies, they brought this custom with them.
The English-speaking majority of the Netherlands renamed Sinterklaas Santa Claus, fusing his mythology of a kind old man with Nordic folktales of a magician who punished bad children and rewarded good ones with gifts. Santa Claus as we know him today was established in the United States in the nineteenth century, and he has been the patron of the Christmas gift-giving holiday ever since.
In the Netherlands, Belgium, and other northern European nations, St. Nicholas has been converted into a similarly generous gift-giving figure under many guises. Santa Claus is called “Father Christmas” in Britain.
As a Christian holiday, Christmas commemorates Jesus’s birth. The phrase “mass on Christ’s day” (Christmas) only appeared in the English language in the twentieth century. Yule, the original name for the Winter Solstice celebration, may have been derived from the Germanic Jl or the Anglo-Saxon gel. The equivalents in Spanish (Navidad), Italian (Natale), and French (Nol) likely mean “nativity” as well.
When translated literally from German, Weihnachten means “holy night.” From the beginning of the twentieth century onward, Christmas has also been celebrated as a secular family holiday, both by Christians and non-Christians, by removing all overtly religious elements from the celebration, and by emphasizing the giving and receiving of increasingly extravagant gifts.
A fictional character dubbed Santa Claus plays a significant part in today’s commercialized Christmas season. Sunday, December 25, 2022, is Christmas Day.
Origin and Development
The early Christian community made a clear distinction between determining Jesus’ birthdate and commemorating it liturgically. It took a long time for the real celebration of Jesus’ birthday to arrive. Particularly throughout the first two centuries of Christianity, there was tremendous opposition to celebrating the birthdays of martyrs or, for that matter, of Jesus.
Saints and martyrs, in the eyes of the Church, should be honored on the dates of their martyrdom rather than on their arbitrary birth dates, therefore many of the Church Fathers made snide remarks about the pagan custom of celebrating birthdays.
It’s not clear where the tradition of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 came from. There is nothing indicating this in the New Testament. It wasn’t until 221 when Sextus Julius Africanus established December 25 as the day Jesus was born, and now it’s widely accepted.
The winter solstice was a popular holiday in the Roman Empire, commemorating the return of the sun, the end of winter, and the beginning of spring and summer. Many people believe that the celebration of Christmas on December 25 is a Christianization of this ancient Roman holiday, the dies Solis invicti nati (literally “day of the birth of the unconquered sun”).
After December 25 was generally regarded as the day of Jesus’ birth, Christian authors often drew parallels between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son. While the early church was very concerned with setting itself apart from pagan beliefs and practices, this interpretation argues that Christians would be casual about appropriating a pagan holiday.
Another theory proposes that the spring equinox was the date of creation, and the fourth day of creation, when the light was formed, became the day of Jesus’ conception, thereby establishing December 25 as the date of his birth (i.e., March 25). Jesus’ actual birthday was finally settled on December 25—nine months later. Jesus’ birthday was traditionally commemorated on the same day as his baptism, which is January 6.
The 9th century saw the beginning of a more formalized liturgy for Christmas celebrations, however, the event never gained the same liturgical prominence as Good Friday or Easter, the other two great Christian holidays.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, Roman Catholic churches hold the first Christmas mass, and in recent years, more and more Protestant churches have followed suit with Christmas Eve candlelight services.
Christmas melodies are woven with Scripture readings that recount the story of salvation from the Garden of Eden to the birth of Christ in a ceremony called “lessons and carols.” Originally implemented by E.W. Benson at the University of Cambridge, the service has since gained widespread acceptance.
Contemporary Customs in The West
It has been established that none of our modern Christmas traditions can be traced back to any kind of theological or liturgical declaration. The practice of bringing fir tree branches inside one’s home was documented by Renaissance humanist Sebastian Brant in his work Das Narrenschiff (1494; The Ship of Fools).
While the exact year and place of the first decorated Christmas tree are unknown, it seems that fir trees decked out in apples were first seen in Strasbourg around 1605. In 1611, a Silesian duchess is credited with becoming the first person to put candles in such trees.
The Advent wreath, traditionally fashioned of fir branches and lit on each of the four Sundays in Advent, is even more recent in its origin, particularly in North America. Although the practice dates back to the 19th century, its origins may be traced all the way back to the 16th, when a fir wreath would be adorned with 24 candles (one for each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas, beginning on December 1).
The Advent calendar is a similar tradition, with its 24 doors opening one at a time starting on December 1. One Munich housewife in the 19th century who was sick of being asked “When is Christmas?” supposedly came up with the idea for the calendar.
Commercial calendars made their debut in 1851 with a run of German presses. The widespread practice of setting up Christmas trees in worship spaces long in advance of December 25 is illustrative of how the commercialization of Christmas has muddled the traditional liturgical boundary between Advent and the Christmas season.
It was during the end of the 18th century that the custom of presenting presents to one’s relatives first gained widespread acceptance. While the arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem hinted that Christmas had something to do with exchanging presents, the feast day reminded Christians of God’s gift of Jesus to humanity.
Traditions like exchanging gifts between loved ones help support the idea that Christmas has always been a secular celebration. Because of this, Puritans in both Old and New England fought to have Christmas outlawed in their respective countries (both England and America).
Several well-known English “Christmas” carols, such as “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and “Deck the Halls,” provide beautiful illustrations of the custom of celebrating Christmas as a secular family event.
It’s also reflected in another English import from the 19th century—the tradition of sending holiday greeting cards to friends and family. For example, in countries like Austria and Germany, the Christ Child is seen as the holiday’s gift-giver, further cementing the festival’s status as a Christian celebration and a family celebration.
When his feast day (December 6) rolls around, St. Nicholas makes an appearance in certain European countries, bringing children small presents of candy and other goodies. A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as ” ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) is credited with transforming Santa Claus from a minor figure in North American Christmas celebrations to a key figure in the gift-giving rituals of the holiday.
Santa Claus is a secular figure despite his Christian name and clothing (a take on the traditional bishop’s garb) and his job of questioning youngsters about their past behavior being similar to that of St. Nicholas. Santa Claus wears red swimming trunks and a white beard in Australia, where festivities include outdoor carol concerts and Christmas dinners on the beach.
Christmas Eve, or the evening of December 24, is the traditional day for exchanging gifts in most of Europe, in honor of the traditional belief that Jesus Christ was born on that date. However, in North America, gift-giving has shifted to the morning of Christmas Day, December 25.
When European families went home from Christmas mass in the early hours of the 25th, they would exchange small gifts. This custom was common in the 17th and 18th centuries. When gift-giving shifted to Christmas Eve, December 24, the traditional Christmas Eve liturgy was moved to the afternoon of that day.
In North America, the morning of December 25 has become the traditional time for families to exchange gifts. As a result, most Christian churches no longer offer services on that day, with the exception of the Catholic Church and a small number of Lutheran and Episcopal congregations.
Due to its significance as one of the major Christian feast days, most European countries celebrate Christmas twice a year, on December 25 and 26. This custom harkens back to the old Christian liturgical practice of making the weeklong celebrations of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. After a while, the seven-day celebration was whittled down to just Christmas and one more holiday on December 26.