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Who is Santa Claus and Where Did He Come From?

“Is Santa real?” 

Parents dread this question, especially at Christmas time. 

But whether they change the subject or confront it directly, few have replied as sentimentally or eloquently as the New York Sun columnist who once famously confirmed, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” 

However parents choose to respond, it is true that there once was a man named Nicholas who became legendary for his generosity.

Who is Santa Claus?

Our modern image of a “jolly old elf” is rooted in the life of Nicholas of Myra, a third century Christian who lived in what is now Turkey. Nicholas became a bishop and eventually was designated a saint. During his lifetime, he was devoted to serving the poor. Among other things, St Nicholas is the patron saint and protector of children.

There are many stories about St. Nicholas’ kindness. In one prominent story, he is credited with beginning the tradition of the Christmas stocking

The Feast of St. Nicholas was commonly celebrated throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and continued to be a popular holiday in Holland. Early Dutch immigrants brought their customs with them to the U.S., including “Sinterklaas.”

Is Santa an Elf?

The earliest reference to Santa Claus as a “jolly old elf” appears in “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” by Clement Clark Moore. Better known as “The Night Before Christmas,” the poem was first published in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823. Moore’s fanciful tale supplies many of the modern trappings of Santa, from his fur-lined suit and reindeer-powered sleigh to his exit up the chimney.  

Forty years later, Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast borrowed heavily from Moore’s description when he drew the first images of Santa Claus. Far from a cheerful midnight visitor, however, Nast’s Civil War-era Santa shows strong political tendencies as he dons striped pants and a jacket with stars while distributing gifts to Union soldiers.

Nast continued to depict Santa for Harper’s Weekly for another three decades. Over time, the artist provided Santa with a red coat trimmed in white fur and placed him at his North Pole workshop reviewing a ledger filled with the names of “naughty” and “nice” children.

'A Norman Rockwell Christmas'

Another famous illustrator took command of the Christmas sleigh reins in the early 20th century. Christmas was a common artistic theme for Norman Rockwell, whose art is closely associated with The Saturday Evening Post magazine. Throughout his career, Rockwell painted 321 covers for the Post. More than 30 of these were holiday covers; 10 featured Santa Claus. 

Like the Santas depicted by other famous artists of the time, Rockwell’s art demonstrates an evolution of Santa’s image into a kindly, thoughtful and hard-working old gent, with a full white beard, rosy cheeks and a round belly. 

In addition to his Post covers, Rockwell painted Santa in several advertisements of the day, cementing the jolly old elf’s secondary career in marketing. Despite Santa’s dip into commercialism, Rockwell’s Christmas art was highly influential in shaping the modern image of a family-oriented sentimental holiday.


Santa the Salesman

Through the first few decades of the 20th century, Santa peddled products from chocolates to cigarettes, but none more famously than Coca-Cola. In 1931, The Coca-Cola Company hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to re-imagine Santa Claus for their advertising. Sundblom’s rosy-cheeked Santas were warm, playful – and considerably larger than elf-size. 

The wildly popular ad campaign – always depicting Santa drinking a Coca-Cola – continued to use Sundblom’s “Vision of Santa Claus” paintings for the next 33 years.

Santa Claus Lives On

Nearly 200 years since his first public appearance, Santa has been featured in countless movies, advertisements and Christmas television specials. Representations of Santa Claus have been placed in almost every situation and mood imaginable.

However, our most enduring and beloved image of St. Nicholas remains as ever, a kindly, gift-giving man with a big sack of goodies and a bigger heart.

Today, many people collect Santa figures for their holiday decorations or to bring a touch of Christmas joy all year long. Take a peek at our Santa ornaments, Santa figurines, outdoor Santa decorations and Santa Claus decor to add to the spirit of the season in your home.