Santa Claus Tradition History
It’s only fitting that since Santa Claus has the magnificent capability to visit homes around the world in a single night that more than one place would claim to be his home. It’s common belief that Santa hails from the wintry North Pole, but folks in Finland will also tell you that Santa calls that country his home. To prove it, the Finns will even invite you to visit Santa Claus in his workshop before Christmas or during the year and talk with Santa as he and his elves busy themselves for their end-of-year Christmas expedition around the globe.
The popularity in America today of the images and legend of Santa Claus can be traced to the poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’***, that was written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. In that poem, Moore described St. Nicholas as a jolly fellow who flew from house to house in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and waited for children to go to bed on Christmas Eve before he came down the chimney to deliver Christmas presents for them.
Following the distribution of that poem, the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly published cartoons by Thomas Nast between 1863 and 1886 that depicted Santa as a cheerful fellow with a large round belly and long white beard who wore a bright red suit that was trimmed with white fur. In those cartoons, Santa also held a sack, which was filled with toys for boys and girls, over his shoulder. The cartoons also showed Santa Claus reading letters from good boys and girls, working in his workshop with his elves, checking his list to make sure he had all the required toys and even showed his wife, Mrs. Claus.
Santa Comes to America
The tradition of Santa Claus was brought to America however, by Dutch colonists who settled in New York City, which was called New Amsterdam at the time. The real St. Nicholas is said to be a minor saint from the 4th Century with a reputation for generosity and kindness that gave rise to legends of many miracles that he performed for the poor and unhappy. One of the stories about the legend of St. Nicholas is that he saved three poor girls who were sisters from being sold into a life of slavery or prostitution by their father. According to the legend, Santa Claus provided the girls with a dowry so that they could get married.
The legend of St. Nicholas led to hundreds of people being devoted to him and consequently thousands of European churches became dedicated to him. After the Reformation period however, widespread practice and worship of St. Nicholas disappeared in European countries that were Protestant, except in Holland where the legend of St. Nicholas continued. St. Nicholas was known as Sint Nikolaas but that was later corrupted to Sinter Klaas.
Dutch colonists took this tradition of Sinter Klaas to New York City where it was adopted using the English name of Santa Claus. Over time, the Dutch legend of the kindly saint was combined with old Nordic folktales about a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good ones with presents to give rise to the stories that now exist about Santa Claus.
The red and white-trimmed suit of Santa Claus is believed to be the colors that the original St. Nicholas wore because red and white were the colors of the robes worn by traditional bishops. It is also believed that the Coca Cola Co. played a role in what is regarded as the popular look of Santa Claus today through paintings by artist Haddon Sundblom that were placed in some of the company’s advertisement between 1931 and 1964.
Twas the Night Before Christmas
(or A Visit from St. Nicholas)
by Clement Clarke Moore
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.
And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the roof there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
gave the lustre of midday to objects below,
when, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles, his coursers they came,
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:
“Now Dasher! Now Dancer!
Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid!
On, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch!
To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away!
Dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky
so up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
with the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes–how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
and filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem, which he named “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” was published for the first time on December 23, 1823 by a New York newspaper, the Sentinel. Since then, the poem has been reprinted, translated into innumerable languages and circulated throughout the world.
Clement Clarke Moore was born in 1779 to a well-known New York family. His father, Reverend Benjamin Moore, was president of (what is now) Columbia University and was the Episcopal Bishop of New York. Moore’s father also participated in George Washington’s first inauguration and gave last rites to Alexander Hamilton after Hamilton was mortally wounded in an 1804 duel with Aaron Burr. Moore himself was an author, a noted Hebrew scholar, spoke five languages, and was an early real-estate owner and developer in Manhattan.
Despite his accomplishments, Clement Clarke Moore is remembered only for “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which legend says he wrote on Christmas Eve in 1822 during a sleigh ride home from Greenwich Village after buying a turkey for his family. Some say the inspiration for Moore’s pot-bellied St. Nicholas was the chubby, bewhiskered Dutchman who drove Moore to Greenwich Village to buy his holiday turkey. Moore never copyrighted his poem, and only claimed it as his own over a decade after it was first made public.
Moore read the poem to his wife and six children the night he wrote it, and supposedly thought no more about it. But a family friend heard about it and submitted the poem to the Sentinel, a newspaper in upstate New York, which published it anonymously the following Christmas. Moore’s poem immediately caught the attention and imagination of the state, then the nation, and then the world. Finally, in 1844, he included it in a book of his poetry. Moore died in 1863 and is buried in Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights, New York.
Because of his “mere trifle”, as he called it, 175 years ago Clement Clarke Moore almost single-handedly defined our now timeless image of Santa Claus.