We know him as the chubby guy from the North Pole. But the real Saint Nick was a slim Mediterranean. Here’s how he evolved.
Saint Nicholas of Myra (in modern-day Turkey) is a bishop hailed for his generosity. He’s famous for having thrown a bag of gold through a window as dowries for three poor sisters. The day of his death, December 6, is still celebrated as Saint Nicholas Day in Armenia, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries.
17th to 18th Centuries
In the New World, the children of the English colonists encounter other immigrants and learn the Dutch tradition of setting out wooden shoes in which Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) leaves presents. They also hear of Christkindl, the (female) German gift-bearing angel, who brings gifts. The English youth mispronounce these names as “Santa Claus” and “Kris Kringle,” respectively.
The Santa narrative fills out (as does his belly): He commands a flying sleigh (Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York), slides down chimneys (Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas”), and monitors kids from the North Pole (Thomas Nast’s Harper’s Weekly cartoons). Newfound glee for jolly Saint Nick leads to the first department-store Santa taking post at a shop in Philadelphia.
In 1897, the New York Sun responds to an eight-year-old’s letter with the famous editorial “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
The U.S. Postal Service provides an address for all those Christmas wish lists: “Santa Claus, North Pole, Alaska.”
Coca-Cola solidifies Father Christmas’s iconic look, decking him out in its corporate colors—red and white—plus a big belt for an ad campaign.
Illustrator Haddon Sundblom employs a friend, a retired salesman, as a model for Santa. But when the friend dies, Sundblom uses his own image to paint the big guy by looking in a mirror.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command sets up a "Santa cam" to track the jolly one’s Christmas Eve ride. Today there’s an app and a site (noradsanta.org).
Due to a typo in the 1955 Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog, kids trying to phone Santa via a “hotline” end up ringing the Continental Air Defense Command.
The first SantaCon, a(n overly) festive bar crawl, takes place in San Francisco. Over the next two decades, more than 300 cities, from Atlanta to Zurich, host countless rowdy revelers getting their drink on while getting their Santa suit on.
Kids keep believing. In New York City alone, the number of letters to Santa that arrive at the post office annually is about half a million. If you want to preserve that innocence, be ready to change the channel when commercials come on this month for Krampus, a new horror movie about Saint Nick’s evil alter ego.