Who is Santa Claus really? Research into his origin and history unmask a more realistic image

santa image chronology
An evolving image of a popular man.

December is a month that predominantly focuses on Christmas. Everybody is getting ready for the festivities, buying presents and Christmas trees, listening to songs and stories of Christmas, with children eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus, who is also known as Kris Kringle. But who really is this mythical figure that most everyone around the globe knows and adores?

The story of Santa Claus dates back to the 4th Century and begins with a man called Nicholas, later known as Nicholas of Myra or Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was a charitable, pious man from what is now present-day Turkey. Persecuted and imprisoned as a young man by the Roman Empire due to his Christian beliefs, he rose to fame under the Roman emperor Constantine, who, contrary to his predecessors, ended the persecution of Christians and issued an edict that protected Christians instead. This allowed Nicholas to become an early Christian bishop in Myra, a small Roman town in modern-day Turkey. Due to his many charitable and merciful acts before and during his time as bishop, Nicholas’ fame spread all over Europe and prevailed long after his death.

The most well-known story stems from the time when Nicholas was still a young man. He had heard of an indebted father of three young girls. The father was about to sell his daughters into prostitution in order to pay his debts, so Nicholas, who must have come from a wealthy family, stopped by the father’s house for three nights and secretly delivered three bags of gold. On the third night the father awaited the arrival of the mysterious man and asked him to reveal his identity so he could  thank the man. The gold allowed the father to pay off his debts and saved the girls from prostitution.

Another story stems from Nicholas’ time as bishop of Myra. He had heard of three pious men who were about to be executed shortly after Constantine had issued his edict to protect them. The Roman guards were about to execute the men anyway, so Nicholas with his new powers as bishop, intervened, and saved the men’s lives.

These acts and great stories from Nicholas of Myra’s life are why, after his death, he was named the patron of children and magical gift bringer. His tales also made Nicholas the unchallenged bringer of gifts in Europe for several hundred years. From 1200 to 1500, celebrations were held on the day of his death, 6 December 343, to remember his name and acts. The tradition of gift giving on this day can be traced back to the 12th century. According to a BBC documentary about the life and death of St. Nicholas, it was French nuns who were so inspired by the legend of Nicholas that on St. Nicholas Day (December 6) they filled socks with nuts and fruits and laid them at the houses of the poor. This tradition became established throughout Europe, where children today still clean their boots the night before St. Nicholas Day and put them outside their doors to find them filled with treats and fruits on the morning of December 6. In North America, this has transformed into the tradition of Christmas stockings.

st. nicholas
The historic figure St. Nicholas.

With the Reformation in the 16th century under Martin Luther, religious relics and saints were seen as unfavorable for many reasons across much of Europe. Mainly, it was due to a growing industry around religious relics that had led to their abuse. Many scientists also believe that the festivities around St. Nicholas had grown so tremendously that especially the Protestants felt that these celebrations shifted the focus too much from celebrating the roots of the Christian belief, namely Jesus Christ and his birth. Thus, tremendous efforts were made during the Reformation to move these festivities to December 24th, while also trying to ban festivities around St. Nicholas. The job of gift giving fell to baby Jesus, which in Germanic areas became known as Christkind or Christkindl (meaning “Christ child”). The term later entered into the English language, presumably via German speaking immigrants to the New World in the 17th and 18th Centuries, where it transformed to “Kris Kringle”. It was also in the New World where the traditions and celebrations of especially Dutch and German speaking settlers around St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch) and the Christkind merged to our modern-day Santa Claus.

His modern appearance seems to be based on Germanic depictions of St. Nicholas that the settlers brought with them. St. Nicholas traditionally dressed in brown or green robes. The idea that the change to red was made by the Coca Cola company has been heavily promoted in recent years –  an idea the company no doubt knew to use to their advantage. However, according to historian Prof. Gerry Bowler with the University of Manitoba, it was actually the cartoonist Thomas Nast who first depicted Santa Claus in red robes in the 1870s. “Nast produced numerous drawings of Santa for Harper’s Weekly over a period of more than 20 years and, having first portrayed him in the Stars and Stripes and green, eventually […] settled on red” (Curtis). It is unknown why Nast settled on red. Some researchers suggest Nast may have wanted to link back to the iconography of St. Nicholas, who very often was depicted in red robes. But, as Curtis argues, it could also just have been for aesthetic reasons.

a potential real face
A potential real face of a historic Good Samaritan.

But how did Santa end up living at the North Pole, compared to old Germanic tales, where he comes from the woods or simply from faraway lands? This can be attributed to Thomas Nast, who according to Stephen Moss, “was the first to portray Santa as a native of the North Pole”. Further attributes of Santa Claus where fleshed out in a poem that was anonymously published in the Troy Sentinel in 1823 entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Today it is better known as “The Night Before Christmas”. The poem instantly rose to fame and was later claimed by Clement Clarke Moore, whereas some scholars believe it was written by Henry Livingston Jr. Nevertheless, it was this very poem that illustrated St. Nicholas with a flying sleigh full of toys that is pulled by eight reindeer.

The fame of St. Nicholas had many scientists wonder for years what the real Nicholas of Myra actually looked like. With ever advancing technology, anthropologist Prof. Caroline Wilkinson from Manchester University and scientists at the Liverpool John Moores University’s Face Lab achieved the previously undoable and were able to create a three-dimensional computer-generated model based on x-rays and measurements taken from what are believed to be Nicholas of Myra’s remains. The remains are kept in a basilica in Bari, Italy. In the 1950s, the Vatican had granted the anthropologist Prof. Luigi Martino permission to exhume and examine them during restoration work at the basilica. The facial reconstruction techniques and 3D interactive technology used to virtually reconstruct the x-ray scans of Nicholas’ skull and face are considered to be 70% reliable. However, Prof. Wilkinson and her team of scientists acknowledge that they worked from historic data and thus some detail may have been lost.


Sources:
Auswärtiges Amt. “Who Is Actually Nikolaus? – Traditional Characters in German Christmas Mythology.” Who Is Actually Nikolaus? – Traditional Characters in German Christmas Mythology – Federal Foreign Office, 27 Nov. 2018, canada.diplo.de/ca-en/vertretungen/generalkonsulat2/-/2282786?pk_campaign=newsletter_%3F%3F%3Flabel.doctype.AANLIssue%3F%3F%3F_2019_12_04&pk_kwd=teaser_Who%2Bis%2Bactually%2BNikolaus%3F%2B-%2BTraditional%2Bcharacters%2Bin%2BGerman%2BChristmas%2BMythology.

Curtis, Polly. “Researchers Find the Real Face of Father Christmas.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Dec. 2004, www.theguardian.com/education/2004/dec/13/highereducation.uk.

Handwerk, Brian. “From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: the Surprising Origins of Kris Kringle.” The History of How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus, National Geographic Partners, LLC, 25 Dec. 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/12/131219-santa-claus-origin-history-christmas-facts-st-nicholas/.

McGarry, Patsy. “The Real Thing: Scientists Recreate Santa Claus’s Face.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 23 Dec. 2016, www.irishtimes.com/news/offbeat/the-real-thing-scientists-recreate-santa-claus-s-face-1.2915945.

Moss, Stephen. “Why Is Santa Red? You Asked Google – Here’s the Answer | Stephen Moss.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Dec. 2017, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/20/why-is-santa-red-google.

Image Sources:

Fig 1: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/96/fe/6b/96fe6b748924a208ef83b2379d5df464.jpg

Fig 2: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/e8/0c/d4/e80cd47bc1809bc7cc212a3e1f87d764.jpg

Fig 3: https://www.reifra.de/media/image/f3/fd/a8/3055_nostalgische_Praege_-_Postkarte_-_Nikolaus_mit_4_Ki_1_600x600.jpg

Fig 4: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/13/5b/9d/135b9d53b382e4e62ca0e6ab5fd6970e.jpg

Fig 5: https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/ca6b31bf344c8aa552548e2e45adb3660592f477/8_474_1902_1141/master/1902.jpg?width=620&quality=85&auto=format&fit=max&s=d9e34284ab4b52bf9fc3a64ba737c132

Fig 6: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d9/Jaroslav_%C4%8Cerm%C3%A1k_%281831_-_1878%29_-_Sv._Mikul%C3%A1%C5%A1.jpg/220px-Jaroslav_%C4%8Cerm%C3%A1k_%281831_-_1878%29_-_Sv._Mikul%C3%A1%C5%A1.jpg

Fig 7: https://www.ndr.de/geschichte/nikolaus236_v-portraits.jpg

Fig 8: https://natgeo.imgix.net/74677.adapt.590.1.jpg?auto=compress,format&w=728

Fig 9: https://www.irishtimes.com/polopoly_fs/1.2915943.1482436049!/image/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/box_620_330/image.jpg

Fig 10: https://i.pinimg.com/736x/51/60/53/516053222ef473cabf39387ba119778f.jpg

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