The Real Hackstory of Santa Claus

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Stories December 19, 2018 Featured Image

As of writing this article, I have never had my house broken into.

(I’m not complaining. Please don’t take that statement as a challenge.)

I have had a few strangers wander onto my property and yell things at me, both occurrences of which were disconcerting enough for me to be very, very grateful that I’ve never had to deal with an actual intrusion.

Why am I telling you this?

Aside from the fact that therapy is very expensive, I want us all to take a collective second and reflect on how really freaking weird it is that we as a society accept, nay welcome (with cookies!), Santa Claus into our homes through our chimneys once per year.

Now, I’m well aware that (spoiler alert) Santa isn’t real, but I still think the tradition is a bit strange. As humans, we’re biologically coded to protect our homes. So how did we end up creating a mythology where we allow a fat elf to shimmy his way down our chimneys once a year?

The answer, my Internet friends, is marketing – and a little Christmas miracle.

From Humble Beginnings

Jolly Old Saint Nick, tossing some coins threw the window.
Source: The dowry for the three virgins (Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1425, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome) // Wikimedia Commons

The legend of Santa Claus dates all the way back to 280 AD, when a monk named Nicholas wandered the countryside in Myra (modern-day Turkey) performing miracles for the poor and sick.1

Nicholas was known for his secret gift-giving – he would shower goodies on those less fortunate than him. In the best known of these stories, Nick tossed a sack of gold coins through the window of three sisters who were bound to be sold into prostitution, saving them from their terrible fate. Unsurprisingly, his penchant for throwing bags of money made Nicholas extremely popular amongst the common people and he developed reputation for kindness and generosity.2

After his death, Nicholas of Myra became Saint Nicholas, thanks to his legendary piety and a few well-known miracles that were attributed to him. Nicholas was recognized as a saint long before the Catholic Church began standardizing canonization in the late tenth century and had become the most popular saint in Europe by the time of the Renaissance. 3

His popularity lasted up through the Protestant Reformation, even when the venerations of saints began to be discouraged.4 I guess no one really saw the problem with praying to someone known for tossing fat sacks of gold coins into your window at night.

The City That Never Sleeps… on Commercialism

St. Nick retained his popularity up through the centuries, particularly in Holland, where he was known as Sinter Klaas. In the eighteenth century, Sinter Klaas hopped across the pond and melded with American commercialism to become Santa Claus.

The Dutch families that settled in New York City brought their fondness for jolly old Saint Nick with them and soon woodcuts of St. Nick filling stockings with toys and fruit were distributed throughout the city. Author Washington Irving even went as far as referring to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York.

As he became more popular, Sinter Klaas developed a signature look: a blue-three cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings. If not for a little Christmas miracle, Santa Claus may have been stuck in this fashion purgatory for all eternity.

The Night Before Christmas

In 1822, an Episcopal minister by the name of Clement Clarke Moore published a poem titled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.”

In the poem, Moore described St. Nicholas as less a wandering monk and more a right jolly elf, complete with a portly belly and full, white beard. This Sinter Klaas became Santa Claus, who retained the gift-giving tendencies of his previous incarnations but switched up his nomadic walks for rides in a sled pulled by reindeer. 5

While Moore initially dismissed the poem as “frivolous,” this likeness of Santa Claus caught on, so much so that it was immortalized in a political cartoon by artist Thomas Nast. In his cartoon, Nast gave Santa a head-to-toe red suit trimmed with white fur and presto: an icon was (re)born.

From the Papers to the Mall

While it was a Christmas miracle that gave Santa his red suit, it was some good old-fashioned marketing that made Santa Claus a household name. By the 1840s, newspaper across the United States had begun to feature special Christmas advertisements. Those ads needed a fun, relatable subject, or else they were just illustrations that encouraged people to spend money the didn’t have.6

Enter Santa.

With his red suit and jolly grin, Santa became the central figure in thousands of holiday advertisements. Soon after that, Santa began making his appearance at shopping malls across the country, with children clamoring to get a look at the “real” Santa Claus. Even the Salvation Army did its part to solidify Santa’s association with Christmas, dressing men up in that iconic red suit and sending them out to collect donations for charity.7

Santa Claus Sugar Plums, showing a red(ish) suited Santa Claus on sleigh with reindeer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Leave Out the Milk and Cookies

From the early nineteenth century version, the legend of Santa Claus grew and grew, until he became synonymous with Christmas itself. While today’s version of Saint Nicholas is very different than the monk who wandered the Turkish wilderness helping those less fortunate, now that I know a bit more about the real hackstory of Santa Claus, I think it’s safe to say that both versions deserve cookies.

I still won’t be leaving my fireplace open. It does get drafty, after all.

Notes 📌

  1. History.com. (Last updated December 6, 2018). Santa Claus. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus
  2. History.com. (Last updated December 6, 2018). Santa Claus. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus
  3. History.com. (Last updated December 6, 2018). Santa Claus. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus
  4. History.com. (Last updated December 6, 2018). Santa Claus. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus
  5. History.com. (Last updated December 6, 2018). Santa Claus. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus
  6. History.com. (Last updated December 6, 2018). Santa Claus. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus
  7. History.com. (Last updated December 6, 2018). Santa Claus. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus

Notes & Citations 📌

  • History.com. (Last updated December 6, 2018). Santa Claus. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus
  • "Relics of St. Nicholas – Where are They?". Saint Nicholas Center. Retrieved from http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/relics/
written with 💖 by Hayley Milliman

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