Every year children across the world eagerly await the arrival of that jolly fat, red man Santa Claus. But is he real? Well, in a way, yes he is.

The Santa Claus story begins around 200 CE, with a sailing ship caught in the grip a terrible storm outside the Turkish port of Myra. As cargo was being thrown overboard by a  crew desperate to stop their ship being overwhelmed by the storm, someone remembered a man of God was on board. Perhaps he could help. “Nicholas, Nicholas” went the cry. And from his cabin emerged a man with a white beard, Nicholas. Holding the rail he prayed for God’s mercy. His prayer was apparently answered, for the storm died down and the ship limped into the port city of Myra.

Upon reaching dry land Nicholas made his way to the nearest church, intent on giving thanks to God for the safe passage of the ship and her crew. Unbeknown to him a group of elders were gathered in the church, seeking God’s will as to whom should be appointed bishop of their city. The white bearded Nicholas was the answer to their prayers. As bishop he wore a long red robe and became known as the “Bishop of Miracles”, for there were many reports of amazing answers to his prayers.

During his bishopry Nicholas was disturbed to discover many young girls were sold into prostitution if their parents were too poor to afford a marriage dowry. As he was from a wealthy family Nicholas struck upon a plan of action. He launched it one December 6th. Under the cover of darkness he secretly moved around the town, dropping small bags of gold coins through the window of homes where there was a little girl but a family too poor to afford a dowry. From that time on Nicholas would follow the same practice every December 6th. Families were  elated to save their daughters from slave prostitution.  It is said that one year when Nicholas reached through a window, the bag of coins fell into a stocking hanging by the fire to dry – the source of our Christmas stocking tradition.

It was not until the year of his death that people discovered who the mystery benefactor was. Five hundred years later Nicholas was made a saint by the Catholic church – thus our talk of “Saint Nicholas”. As his story spread so did attempts to imitate his kindness. In the twelfth century French nuns began imitating him by taking bags of fruit and nuts to poor families every December 5 – what became known as “St Nicholas’ Eve”. In Russia St Nicholas became a patron saint and was celebrated every Christmas. In England he was given the name “Father Christmas”, in France “Papa Noel”

In Holland St Nicholas was known as “Sinter Klass”, “Sinter” meaning “Saint” and “Klass” for “Nicholas.”  Elsewhere those with broken English heard the story of Saint Nicholas dropping coins through windows onto the hearth and developed the into the idea of the gift-giver coming down the chimney, landing in the cinders of the fire below. So for some he became “Cinder Klaussen”.

Then in 1822 Clement Moore wrote his famous poem, “The Night Before Christmas”, in which the Dutch Sinter Klass became Santa Claus. He probably drew (whether directly or indirectly ) from the poet Washington Irvin who had published a book about a Dutch colonist’s dream in which St. Nick came riding over the tops of trees in a wagon in which he brings yearly presents to the children.

Thomas Nash was a cartoonist for Harpers Weekly. He began drawing pictures of the figure described in Clement Moore’s poem. He gave Santa Claus the red robes and white beard of the original St Nicholas, and decided to make his Santa plump and jolly. The final stage in Santa’s evolution came when Coca-Cola had what is now the definitive Santa image drawn up for an advertising campaign.

So is Santa real? Yes he is…or was. And every Christmas we do well to hear his story and imitate his acts of generosity.


Source: reported in Austin Miles, “Santa’s Surprising Origins”, posted at Crosswalk.com news service December 20, 2001