There is a deep connection between St. Nicholas of Myra and Santa Claus, the red-suited long-bearded old good man that every child waits on Christmas Eve. Here is the true story of Santa Claus. A story that began a long time ago in Europe, crossed the Atlantic and became popular in the United States.
St. Nicholas is probably one of the most popular and beloved saints of the Christian tradition. Europeans arriving in the New World brought St. Nicholas’ worship with them, which testifies his popularity back then. Nowadays, it is almost universally believed that back in the 17th century it was the Dutch colonials who brought St. Nicholas to New Amsterdam (today's New York).
For a long time, the New Yorkers remembered with pride their Dutch roots. John Pintard, a patriot and founder of the New York Historical Society, even promoted St. Nicholas as the patron saint of the city. Washington Irving joined the Historical Society in 1809 and that on St. Nicholas Day of that same year he published a satirical novel -- "Knickerbocker's History of New York" it was called -- rich in references to a jolly old Saint Nicholas. Though the character created by Irving was more of an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe, nonetheless it inspired most of the New York's legends and traditions about St. Nicholas.
The 19th century was a time of cultural transition in the United States. Many people wanted to adopt the Christmas holiday and to celebrate it as a holy season. Until then, Christmas had nothing to do with what it is nowadays. All of it began when a new meaning of family life and new children’s needs emerged. St. Nicholas, too, changed to fit the changing times.
Haddon Sundblom — Coca Cola's illustrator in the 1930s — is often credited with having set the tone for the archetypal image of Santa Claus we know today.
In 1821, the first lithographed book was published in America. It was an anonymous poem about "Santa Claus" arriving from the North in a sleigh on a flying reindeer. Santa was a positive character, rewarding good behaviors with toys and punishing the bad ones. According to the poem, Santa Claus made his first appearance on Christmas Eve, rather than on December, 6th.
The jolly elf image received another big boost in 1823 when Clement Clark Moore published a poem destined to become immensely popular -- "A Visit from St. Nicholas", better known as "The Night Before Christmas". "A Visit From St. Nicholas" introduced the custom of a cozy, domestic Christmas tradition across the United States.
It's been a long journey from the saint Bishop of Myra, celebrated in Europe, to the roly-poly Santa Claus. However, this story can help us restore the spiritual dimension of Christmas festivities.