Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa ClausCAROL MYERS
How did the kindly Christian saint, good Bishop Nicholas, become a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for merry holiday festivity and commercial activity?
Colonists came to America after the Reformation in the 1500s. They were primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers who did not bring Nicholas traditions to the New World. What about the Dutch? Although it is nearly universally reported that the Dutch did bring St. Nicholas to New Amsterdam, scholars find limited evidence of such traditions in Dutch New Netherland Colonial Germans in Pennsylvania held the feast of St. Nicholas, and several accounts do have St. Nicholas visiting New York Dutch on New Years' Eve. Patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas in 1773, not to honor Bishop Nicholas, but rather as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies. This St. Nicholas society was similar to the Sons of St. Tammany in Philadelphia. Not exactly St. Nicholas, the children's gift-giver.
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 jolly elf image received a 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."
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.
eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
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. However, a persuasive 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 was the author, it has had an enormous influence on the American transformation of St. Nicholas.
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 America's jolly Santa Claus. However, if you peel back the accretions he is still Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness. In the United States there is growing interest in the original saint to help recover the spiritual dimension of 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 priest, 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.
New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Volume XXXVIII Number 4, October 1954,
"Knickerbocker Santa Claus" by Charles W. Jones
The Encyclopedia of New York State, Sample Entries, "Saint Nicholas" by Peter R. Christoph
Were They Wise Men or Kings, Joseph J. Walsh, Westminster John Knox, 2001
"A Glimpse of an Old Dutch Town," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Harper and Brothers, New York, Vol. 62, Number 370, March 1881.
Book review by Howard Hageman: Charles W. Jones's, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend, in Theology Today, October 1979.
Carol Myers. "Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus." St. Nicholas Center.
This article was reprinted with permission from Carol Myers and the St. Nicholas Center.
The St. Nicholas Center web site contains other articles about St. Nicholas as well as crafts, recipes, songs, and other resource materials for the use of educators and parents.
The purpose of the St. Nicholas Center is to educate people of faith, and the wider public, about the true St. Nicholas, and why he is important in today's world. Embracing St. Nicholas customs can help recover the true center of Christmas - the birth of Jesus.
Carol Myers, the primary creator and editor of StNicholasCenter.org, is an elder in the Reformed Church in America. She and her husband David, a social psychologist, live in Holland, Michigan, and are the parents of three grown children.
Copyright © 2002 St. Nicholas Center
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.