Christianity

Santa Claus: A Religious Figure Transformed by Pop Culture
With roots in both religious folklore and pop culture, Santa Claus has come to dominate the season for countless children everywhere.

With roots in both religious folklore and pop culture, Santa Claus has come to dominate the season for countless children everywhere.

Every Christmas, children all over the world look forward to visits from Santa Claus, the season’s primary gift giver taking center stage in much of our pageantry. Who is this mysterious bearded legend, and why is he such an integral part of Canadian winter holiday celebrations? His roots in both religious folklore and pop culture may surprise you.

A Gift-Giving Man of Many Names

This red-suited modern myth goes by a wide variety of monikers: Kris Kringle, Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas, to name a few. The first is an American-derived nickname, arising from the German “Christkind” tradition, that became well-known in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Popularized by Protestant religious reformer Martin Luther, the Christkind is usually described as an infant-like version of Jesus delivering gifts to children. Meanwhile, Father Christmas was a British figure meant to symbolize feasting and good cheer. It’s the last name, however, that reflects his tale’s beginnings in Byzantine Christianity. The Encyclopedia Britannica divulges what is currently known about the original Saint Nicholas:

  • He was probably born in Lycia, a small region on the southern coast of modern Turkey.
  • This religious figure was likely the bishop of Myra during the fourth century C.E.
  • Saint Nicholas may have attended the first Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.
  • Italian sailors discovered part of his skeleton in 1087 C.E.

The Byzantine Bishop and His Service to the Poor

In Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and several other Christian denominations, Nicholas of Myra was revered as a saint. His entry on Biography.com includes stories of his generosity, such as repeatedly sharing from his sizable inheritance with poor and sick individuals. There’s also the most well-known tale depicting him as an elderly bishop, sneaking into the home of three poor sisters and leaving them a large bag of money to pay for their dowries. Legend insists that without this sizable sum, the trio would have been unable to wed, and their only alternative would have been to enter the sex trade.

How Did Saint Nicholas Turn Into the Santa Claus of Pop Culture?

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, December 6 was widely celebrated as a feast day by Catholics in Europe. It retained its importance in Holland, however, where children put out their shoes the night before in hopes that “Sinterklaas” would leave presents inside them. Immigrants brought these customs to the Americas. However, it wasn’t until a couple of centuries ago that the Byzantine bishop shifted into the scarlet-clad chimney-descending immortal, thanks to a few significant pieces of American pop culture.

The first linkage between the aged bishop and the sleigh-driving benefactor occurred in 1823 when a United States newspaper published “Account of a Visit From Saint Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” This narrative poem regales its readers with the story of a nighttime visit from St. Nick, describing him as a “right jolly old elf” with a “round belly” that “shook like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughed. History.com discloses that the poem inspired political cartoonist Thomas Nast to draw this figure. In 1881, American and Canadian readers were treated to Nast’s vision of a chubby, white-bearded St. Nick making his rounds in a red suit and carrying a sack of toys for children. 

“Happy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!”

Today, Santa Claus is an indelible part of our holiday traditions alongside other pop culture customs such as wintertime light festivals, roasted geese, Christmas trees and Boxing Day. Most of us discover in our childhood that this jolly old red-wearing elf is a myth. Whether or not you consider Santa Claus’ religious origins important, Saint Nicholas himself can illustrate the important principle of charity that so often gets forgotten during the hustle and bustle of the season.