The Story of Santa Claus

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The man we know as Santa Claus has a history all his own. Today, he is thought of mainly as the jolly man in red, but his story stretches all the way back to the 3rd century. Find out more about the history of Santa Claus from his earliest origins to the shopping mall favorite of today, and discover how two New Yorkers–Clement Clark Moore and Thomas Nast–were major influences on the Santa Claus millions of children wait for each Christmas Eve.

The Legend of St. Nicholas

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. Over the course of many years, Nicholas’s popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe.

Sinter Klaas Comes to New York

St. Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In 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.The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of SintNikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas).

Shopping Mall Santas

Gift-giving, mainly centered around children, has been an important part of the Christmas celebration since the early 19th century. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. It was only a matter of time before stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a “live” Santa Claus. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided to needy families. They began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations. Those familiar Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells on the street corners of American cities ever since.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” Although some of Moore’s imagery was probably borrowed from other sources, his poem helped popularize the now-familiar image of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve–in “a miniature sleigh” led by eight flying reindeer–leaving presents for deserving children. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.

Portrait of Santa Claus, by Thomas Nast, Published in Harper’s Weekly, 1881.


  • jolly – happy – wesoły
  • origins – the beginning or cause of something – początki
  • trace back – to find the origin of something – prześledzić
  • a monk – a member of a group of religious men who do not marry and usually live together in a monastery – mnich
  • piety – strong belief in a religion that is shown in the way someone lives – pobożność
  • to spread – to cover, reach, or have an effect on a wider or increasing area – rozprzestrzeniać się
  • a feast day – a day on which a religious event or person is remembered and celebrated – święto
  • to make inroads – to start to have a direct and noticeable effect – wkroczyć, najechać
  • to gather – to come together in a group – gromadzić się
  • to lure – to persuade someone to do something or go somewhere by offering them something exciting – zwabić
  • a peek – a look at something for a short time – zerknięcie
  • Salvation Army – Armia Zbawienia
  • solicit – to ask someone for money – prosić o pomoc
  • an account – a written or spoken description of an event – relacja, opis
  • imagery – the use of words in books to describe ideas or situations – przedstawienie czegoś
  • rotund – round or rounded in shape – okrągły
  • laden with – carrying or holding a lot of something – wypchany czymś
  • trimmed with – if clothes and other things made of cloth are trimmed, they are decorated, especially around the edges – ozdobiony, wykończony, udekorowany (wzdłuż krawędzi)

Na podstawie: & Harper’s Weekly

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