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Who are you, Santa Claus?

Traditions differ between several countries. This phenomenon becomes obvious especially in seasons like Christmas. Although there are some analogies, the holidays reveal rather distinctive variations. One of the most important “person” – at least the mostly used figure for advertisements – is Santa Claus, who brings presents to children. In German he actually has two names and two meaningful dates: Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the 6th December and the “Weihnachtsmann” brings presents on Christmas Eve (24th December). But there is also a huge difference between these two old men. If one wants to distinguish between them, Saint Nicholas is represented with a bishop’s attire, with miter and crozier, whereas Santa Claus is the one with a white beard and the red robe, who comes with a whole bunch of reindeers. Looking closer into history, one finds that both figures mainly stem from one person: the bishop Saint Nicolas from Myra (probably *230 in Patara, Lykien; † 6th december 343). He is known as wonderworker and there are several legends about his life and work. Furthermore, he was the patron of e.g. children and sailors. But if you ask an historian about the real origin of our picture of Saint Nicolas, the answer most likely will be a bit more complicated. In fact a closer look into historical sources shows that there are not many reliable resources about Saint Nicolas as historical person even the dates of his birth and death are not that secure. He probably is more a composition of different historical figures. [1, 2]

At the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther wanted to reduce the attention for the 6th December and Saint Nicholas for the benefit of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas. This evoked that in Germany the “Christkind” brought the presents from then onwards. [2, 3] In England Father Christmas is the responsible figure for Christmas. But at first he was not a gift-giver at all.

The change from the historical bishop figure to the nowadays secularized picture began with the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” that was first published anonymously in Troy, New York. Later Clement Clark Moore stated to be the author but there is an authorship controversy and there are some hints that rather Henry Livingston, Jr. could be the author of the poem. [4] An associated illustration by Thomas Nast in 1881 shows how Santa is described in that poem and reveals that the author (whoever it might be – this will probably also remain an open question) took up the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition.

However, besides the historical ambiguous origin and evolution of our picture of Santa Claus: Who he really is for us still depends on what we believe. Just as Francis Pharcellus Church describes it in his editorial answer to an eight year old girl in the New York Sun in 1879 with the title “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”. A cinematic portrayal is also shown every year in “Miracle on 34th Street” where, eventually, Kris Kringle wins a court procedure.

Nicola Reusch


[2] Manfred Becker-Huberti, “Nikolaus von Myra.”, Presseamt des Erzbistums K?ln

[3] “Nikolaus von Myra” in Munzinger Online/Brockhaus – Enzyklop?die in 30 B?nden. 21. Auflage. Aktualisiert mit Artikeln aus der Brockhaus-Redaktion, URL: