Behind the History and Meaning of the Name: Santa Claus

He goes by many names. But the subject of seemingly infinite holiday songs is known first and foremost by one: Santa Claus.

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Where did the jolly one’s moniker come from? What are its origins, and what does it mean? Sit back, pour yourself a cup of hot cocoa, and let’s dive into the history and meaning of the name: Santa Claus.

The Name

Santa Claus, throughout history, has also been known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, and more. But a Santa by any other name would be as sweet. The mythical fictional figure who brings toys to good children on Christmas Eve (and coal to bad ones), is one of the most beloved characters in Western culture.

The jolly, pot-bellied old man lives at the North Pole in his workshop with his team of elves and stable of flying reindeer who pull his sleigh through the night. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, of course, is at the helm. At his side is Mrs. Claus.

The Origins

The character we know as Santa today is based on several origin figures, including Saint Nicholas, the English character Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas.

Saint Nicholas—a name that if you say it fast enough sounds like “Santa Claus”—was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop in the Roman Empire, what would now be Turkey. He was known for his generosity to the poor, especially for helping women. In the middle ages, due to his reputation for giving, on the evening before his feast day (December 6), children were given gifts in his honor. Today, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of many kinds, including archers, sailors, children, and pawnbrokers.

Father Christmas dates back to the 16th century. At that time, he was pictured as a large man with green and red robes lined with fur. He is the spirit of good cheer, bringing mirth and gifts. Between the 4th and 16th centuries, England no longer celebrated Saint Nicholas’ day, so the country began celebrating Father Christmas on December 25, to coincide with Christmas, itself.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, people celebrated Sinterklass, a character based on Saint Nicholas. Sinterklaas gave gifts to kids. For years, kids got gifts on December 6 but everyone else could receive presents on December 25. In France, the same type of character is celebrated as Pere Noel (Father Christmas).

Later, by the mid-19th century in America, another name had sprouted up for the jolly figure: Kris Kringle. In 1853, a magazine article from the U.S. describing Christmas customs to British readers explained that children in the U.S. hung up stockings on Christmas Eve for a character whose name was Krishkinkle.

The Legend

Over the years in the United States, the image and mythology of the character grew—both literally and figuratively. Santa grew larger and rounder. His wife, Mrs. Claus, was introduced thanks to poet Katharine Lee Bates. His home at the North Pole became canon. Cartoonist Thomas Nast published an image of him in the January 3 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly in which he’s being pulled in a sleigh by reindeer. Nast had another image of Santa in an 1866 issue, which included the caption, “Santa Claussville, N.P.”

In 1902, the children’s book, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, was published by L. Frank Baum and that solidified the character of Santa even further. Then, when Santa became a mascot for companies like Coca-Cola and the Salvation Army, his image took on a whole new level. He was further immortalized in holiday songs like, “Santa Baby,” performed below by the legend Eartha Kitt.

And while Santa is the perfect mascot for materialism, we’ll just keep thinking about him like our North Pole-living grandfather who loves us.

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