A brief history of Santa: a combination of myth, legend, and marketing

As near as anyone can tell, Santa Claus as we know him today was inspired by an unlikely combination of events that began in 280 A.D. with the birth of one Nicholas Corbis-Bettman in Pataria, a city in Asia Minor. He was by all accounts a generous man of great material wealth, and one who liked to remain anonymous when helping the poor.

Legend has it that he gave gifts late at night in order to keep his identity a secret. There are several variations of one of the most famous stories associated with Nicholas, a priest in the Christian church.

The gentlest version is that he provided dowries for the three daughters of a poor man who otherwise had no money to give them upon their marriages. Bishop Nicholas left bags of gold in the stockings the girls had set to dry by the fire. Ever since, children have continued the tradition of leaving Christmas stockings "hung by the chimney with care" as so famously described in Clement Moore's 1822 poem "The Night Before Christmas."

A less innocent -- and perhaps more realistic -- version has been cited by The History Channel. In this version, the dowry provided by Nicholas saved the sisters from being sold into prostitution or slavery.

In any case, Nicholas became renowned for his generosity and kindness. In 303 A.D., the Roman emperor Diocletian decided to reward him by ordering citizens to worship Nicholas as a god. That didn't go over too well in Christian circles, where there is only one Almighty worthy of worship. Even Nicholas himself couldn't in good conscience accept the honor.

The emperor promptly threw Nicholas in prison, where he languished for more than five years. Nicholas was released when Constantine came to power. By this time, Nicholas was a bishop in the church at Myra. He continued his acts of generosity and kindness all the way to his death on December 6, 343 A.D.

One hundred years later, a number of churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece were named in honor of Bishop Nicholas. By 800 A.D., the Eastern Catholic Church had officially recognized him as a saint. During the next 11 centuries, his fame and popularity spread throughout Europe, and stories increased of his particular love for children.

The Dutch in particular honored St. Nicholas; the very first church built by the Dutch in New York City was named -- you guessed it -- St. Nicholas Church. In Dutch, St. Nicholas is pronounced "Sinterklass." On foreign tongues, it soon became "Santa Claus."

Yet some myth-busters (see History News Network at www.hnn.us) claim that Santa as we know him today was mostly fabricated in the United States after the Revolutionary War as Americans began to "invent" traditions for a new country. In Colonial times, Santa was clean-shaven and skinny. By the early 1800s, he was bulky, wore a broad-brimmed Dutch hat and smoked a pipe.

The fat, white-bearded Santa Claus of the red suit made his debut on the pages of Harper's Weekly in 1863 in drawings created by Thomas Nast. The artist based his Santa on descriptions from Moore's "The Night Before Christmas." Over the course of two decades, Nast's Santa Claus kept getting bigger and better. What began as a small and jolly elf grew into a kindly grandfather-like fellow.

By the 1920s, the general image of Santa Claus in the United States was of sack-toting, white-bearded roly-poly gent most often in a red suit trimmed with white fur, although he occasionally appeared in other colors.

A writer on snopes.com laments that many people cling to the mistaken belief that the American Santa Claus was a creation of the Coca Cola Company. The writer argues that it is a myth, and easily proven.

True, the writer notes, Coca Cola certainly became famous for its lush, beautifully rendered illustrations of Santa Claus enjoying cool, refreshing bottles of the soda. And it was a happy coincidence that the colors of Santa's suit coincided with the brand colors of Coca-Cola.

But Coca-Cola didn't introduce its advertising campaign until the early 1930s, by which time the modern image of Santa -- a St. Nicholas for the ages -- had been firmly established in the America psyche. There he has remained virtually unchanged for more than 80 years.


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