Who Was Saint Nicholas Before Being Santa Claus?

Pop culture has long been making itself busy making origin stories of Santa Claus with their own twist that makes the story more marketable. There are also various urban legends that explain the holiday landslide that is Santa Claus. But really, what, pray tell, is the history of such a widely known figure that everyone in all ages can identify when they see him in print, in series lights, and quite literally everywhere in this season?

Photo from Country Living Magazine

Let’s take a look back at how the legend of Saint Nicholas started, and how he became who he is today in the season of Christmas.

Hundreds of years ago lived a monk named St. Nicholas. Known for his devoutness and kindness, he became the protagonist of countless stories that boil down to compassion and giving. He was said to be born around A.D. 280 in Turkey, born from a wealthy family. People said that he traveled around helping the poor and sick with the money he inherited and gave it away to those who needed it.

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His popularity only spread wider and wider as the years went by, becoming the protector of children and sailors. His reputation preceded him even during the Protestant Reformation which largely questioned the existence of saints. St. Nicholas remained loved by many and was the most popular saint in Europe by the Renaissance era.

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After a New York newspaper covered the story of Dutch families celebrating his feast day on December 6th, the prominent Christmas figure made his way to American pop culture. This is how he’s more well-known as Santa Claus than he is as St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas in Dutch is Sint Nikolaas, shortened as Sinter Klaas. The name as we know today is an Americanized version of New York’s first meeting with him in the papers by the end of the 18th century.

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Since then, various Western industries have adopted his image to promote products during the holiday season, much integrated with St. Nicholas’s values of kindness and generosity. It was also well-fitting due to his feast day being in the winter. More stories were made, cuts and edits to the caricature of Santa Claus, and it was a big hit to both children and adults alike for how much it uplifted the Christmas spirits and amplified gift-giving.

Photo from The Daily Meal

Today, he continues to be recognized for what he has been known for centuries ago. Children still wait at their fireplace and hope for the milk and cookies they left nearby to be less when they wake up to signify Santa Claus accepting their offering, and hope that they were good enough this year to be given a gift by him. Santa Claus remains the symbol of joy and Christmas spirit, and will forever be remembered for his alleged laugh, “Ho ho ho!”

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Ashley Cañete
Ashley Cañete

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