It is the belief of many, that the original “Santa Claus” was St. Nicholas of Myra, born in 300 A.D. The only child of affluent parents, he was orphaned at the age of three and sent to a monastery. At the age of 17, he became a priest with a compassion for those in poverty. Throughout the remainder of his life, he systematically gave away his fortune to those in need, especially the children.
According to legend, he was known for dropping bags of gold coins down chimneys, some of which would land in the stockings that had been hung there to dry. In his advanced years, Nicholas was elevated to the position of bishop. The common garb for bishops in that time was a long flowing robe trimmed in fur and a red cape........ Does this sound familiar? After his death, he was elevated to sainthood and incorporated into the Catholic celebration of Christmas.
When the Reformation made the figure of Saint Nicholas undesirable to many Protestant denominations, the Christmas gift-giver took on a number of new forms. In France, he was called Pere Noel; in England, Father Christmas; Russian children referred to him as Father Frost; and to the Dutch he was Sinterklass. Through all of his many transformations two things remained constant, his white beard and his generosity toward children.
Santa Claus, as we know him today, first appeared in the 1823 Clement C. Moore poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” where he is described as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” This figure was popularized in 1863 with a series of illustrations by Thomas Nast that appeared in Harpers Weekly, and permanently etched in our minds with the Haddon Sundlbom Coca-Cola Santa’s which appeared on the back covers of National Geographic and the Saturday evening Post from 1931-1964. It is the Coca-Cola Santa, with his red suite trimmed in white fur, and wearing a black belt and boots, that is considered the image of the “modern” Santa.