Happy St. Nicholas Day! Also known as The Feast of Sinterklaas.
Yesterday, we discussed Krampus and how Krampusnacht was the night before St. Nicholas Day, the saint’s day for St. Nicholas. Today, let’s take a brief look at St. Nicholas.
Yes, St. Nicholas was a real person. He was a bishop in the 4th century known for true acts of kindness, generosity, and selflessness, and some miracles have been attributed to him as well. He died December 6, AD 343, which means his saint’s day is on the day of his death (something those of you with a love of the macabre might find fun).
So how did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus?
I’m glad you asked.
That is attributed to the Dutch and their pronunciation of his name: Sinterklaas.
The Dutch brought the history of Sinterklaas and the custom of giving gifts and sweets to children on his feast day to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the 1600s. The English settlers enthusiastically adopted the joyful Dutch celebrations of St. Nicholas Day, and it seems they gradually began to combine them with their own Christmas celebration traditions. Then, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published in 1823 and later known as the classic “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” cemented the association of Sinter Klaas (Santa Claus) with Christmas. Of course Sinter Klaas to Santa Claus is the result of culture and language combination.
Modern representations of Santa come from images drawn by cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly beginning in 1863. Those images were based on the descriptions in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” This imagery was used later by the Coca Cola company, and it became the norm.
Of course, from there, economic interests pushed things from small gifts and sweets for children to full blown holiday shopping for all, but that’s another story.
So there you have it. From St. Nicholas to Sinterklaas to Santa Claus.