Santa Claus

The name Santa Claus is a variation on the Dutch Sint Klaas. The Sint, or Sante in the Dutch dialect of early New York, obviously corresponds to the English Saint, and the Klaas is somewhat less obviously a hypocoristic form of Nicholas. While in English we typically abbreviate the name as Nick, in Dutch and German it is the final element that is used, resulting in Klaas or Klaus. So Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas. 

Almost nothing is known about the historical Saint Nicholas, and it is even possible that he never actually existed. The only thing about him that is known with any degree of confidence is that he was a fourth-century bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor. Everything else that is “known” about him can be relegated to the status of myth. The most famous story about him, and the one that associates him with gift-giving, is his supposed gift of dowries to three poor, young women. But this, like all of the other stories about him, is a later folkloric addition and is a story that was originally ascribed to earlier, pagan mythical figures, only later transferred onto the saint. Saint Nicholas’s feast day is 6 December, hence his association with Yuletide festivities.

Santa Claus is originally a distinctly Americanized incarnation of the saint. The name arose in colonial New York, a region steeped in Dutch tradition, even in the later colonial period—New York was originally New Amsterdam and ceded to the British and renamed in 1664. The first citation of the name Santa Claus in the OED is from the 26 December 1773 edition of the New York Gazette:

Last Monday the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall.

And the 25 January 1808 edition of Salmagundi, a magazine founded and edited by Washington Irving, has this to say about him:

The noted St. Nicholas, vulgarly called Santaclaus—of all the saints in the kalendar the most venerated by true hollanders, and their unsophisticated descendants.

The 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement C. Moore, another New Yorker, although it does not use the name Santa Claus, created much of the modern lore about the character, including his fur clothing, being fat with a “little round belly,” and his sleigh with “eight tiny reindeer.” But there are differences, notably in that the St. Nicholas of the poem was tiny and elfin. In 1863 cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted Santa Claus in much the way we see him today for the cover of Harper’s magazine. The cover shows Santa visiting Union troops during the U. S. Civil War. In 1881, Nast would depict a more refined image of Santa, seen above, again in the pages of Harper’s.

Like many other aspects of American culture, Santa Claus has been exported and has supplanted or co-exists with other conceptions of St. Nicholas and Christmas gift-givers around the world.


Sources:

Ott, M. “St. Nicholas of Myra.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1911.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, second edition, 1989. s. v. Santa Claus, n.

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