The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to St. Nicholas (a bishop of the fourth century and a gift giver of Myra). It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey.
For several centuries, approx. 1200 to 1500, St. Nicholas was the bringer of gifts on the eve of his feast day i.e., December 6th.
St. Nicholas was known for his good deeds; he was known for helping the poor and needy.
Stories of his benevolence were many. It is said that he gave away all his inherited wealth and travelled the countryside helping the poor and the sick. One of the best-known stories is that of three poor girls. The poor father had no money to pay for their dowry, if he had to marry them. He decided to sell the three daughters to slavery for money. St. Nicholas was the bishop of the town and he decided to help this family.
Nicholas, then decided to execute this plan. He waited for the entire town to sleep and crept up to the window and quickly tossed enough money for the family and hurried back to his home. The next morning, the poor man got up to surprise and was happy thinking it was God’s act. He decided to get his first daughter married. He thought that she and her new husband would support the poor father and the two sisters. But that did not happen and the man was left again in poverty. He again decided to sell his second daughter. St. Nicholas again dropped a bag of money in the house. Again the next morning , the poor man was so elated to receive the money and he decided to get his second daughter married. He again thought that the newly wedded couple would help the poor father but that did not happen. Now, to his utter dismay the father thought of selling his third daughter. He knew he was wrong in doing so, but he had no option but to go ahead selling the poor girl. This time the poor man decided to find out where was the money coming from. He waited through the night. Nicholas again came to the window and threw the money. But this time he was caught and the man decided to chase this mysterious person giving money. Ultimately, it was discovered that it was St. Nicholas and he pleaded to the poor man to not disclose his identity. The poor man realized his folly and begged for mercy. St. Nicholas forgave him but asked him to keep his giving of money as a secret . But somehow this never remained a secret and St. Nicholas became to be known as the giver of joy. There were many such stories of this saint and his good deeds which went for centuries.
Today, Nicholas is considered the patron saint of sailors, children, wolves, and pawnbrokers, among others—as well as the inspiration for the figure of Santa Claus.
By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. He made his entry into the American culture by the end of 18th century. In around December 1773, and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death. Later these Dutch settlers in USA took the old stories of St. Nicholas and he was called as ‘Sinter Klaas’ which then later got changed to Santa Claus.
In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York.
The current portrayal of Santa Claus is based on images drawn by cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, in 1863. This depiction was broadly based on the description given in the poem “An account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), written by Clement Clarke Moore, written in 1822.
This image of Santa Claus was further developed in an advertisement created for the famous Coca-Cola company described him as a stout white-bearded gentleman dressed in a red suit with a black belt, black boots, and a soft red cap. This was effectively created by illustrator Haddon Sundblum in 1931.
Thus, goes the story of Santa and Christmas and as the world celebrates the festival of joy and giving, little do we know about the origin of this great soul: our very loved one” Santa Claus”.