Photo: Sinterklaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children. Other names for the figure include De Sint (“The Saint”), De Goede Sint (“The Good Saint”), and De Goedheiligman (“The Good Holy Man”) in Dutch; Saint Nicolas in French. Sinterklaas looks an awful lot like a thin Santa Claus. He’s a jolly old man with a white beard and a red gown. Sure, he has a bishop’s hat and staff and there’s no Mrs. Sinterklaas, but he doesn’t seem that different. But it’s not just that he doesn’t have a wife—Sinterklaas is celibate so they say!

Santa Claus is one of the most iconic and well known figures of modern day American pop culture. He has been a symbol of kindness, peace, and joy since what seems like the dawn of time. But who is he, and where did he originate? How did he become so ingrained in the modern day celebration of Christmas? To understand the history and evolution of Santa Claus we need to look far back into the past. Around 280 A.D. to be exact, there was a monk named St. Nicholas was believed to be born, in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. There are many legends about St. Nicholas, as he was much admired for his kindness and selfless acts. He is remembered for giving away all of his wealth and worldly possessions and traveling the countryside helping those in need. There are countless stories and legends that were passed down about St. Nicholas and over time he became quite popular and he eventually became known as the protector of children and sailors.

Since his death on the 6th of December in 343, people have feasted in his honor on that day. St. Nicholas quickly became the most popular Saint in Europe and maintained his popularity even through the Protestant Reformation, where many saints lost a great deal of their popularity. St. Nicholas was especially popular in Holland. St. Nicholas has been a figure of American popular culture since 1773 when newspapers would report about Dutch families gathering to honor the anniversary of his death. 

The name Santa Claus evolved from St. Nicholas’s Dutch nickname Sinter Klaas. What we envision today as images of Christmas and Santa Claus can be largely attributed to John Pintard, a member of the New-York Historical Society, who in 1804 distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting, in the backgrounds of the engraving there were many now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace. 

The modern-day image of Santa Claus can be primarily accredited to Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore, who in 1822, wrote a Christmas poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known today by its first line: “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The poem depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys. This was later immortalized by Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist when he crafted the image of Old Saint Nick, in 1881, as a jolly man in red with a white beard calling on Moore’s poem for inspiration. 

However, unlike the annual celebration of St. Nicholas’s death on the 6th of December. Christmas is now celebrated on the 25th. This is largely due to church officials at the end of the third century wanting Christmas to coincide with existing pagan festivals honoring Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (the Persian god of light). Changing the date made it easier to convince Rome’s pagan subjects to accept Christianity as the empire’s official religion.

Of course this doesn’t change the wonder and joy the Christmas season instills in all of us. So go spread some good in the world. And of course, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas from the Turner family and all of us at the Winter Park Times!