Santa’s Origins: Where Did Santa Come From?

(Last Updated On: December 23, 2019)

Where Did Santa Come From?

If you read the title of this post and said “The North Pole,“ you should know that you were probably the kid who would correct anyone who said “tomorrow” after midnight. You know who you are. For everyone else, especially in America, growing up with Santa was probably a given. Even if your family didn’t celebrate Christmas in particular, it’s not like you could escape the constant peppering of our plump friend into your daily life once December starts (recently it’s kinda bled into November, and sometimes October depending on your friends). So let’s get down to it, whether you believe in him or not. Where did the myth of America’s conception of Santa Claus come from?

If you want to see Santa and Krampus throw down, click here.

Where Did Santa Come From?

Santa: Origins

So it’s no secret that Santa’s origins lie with the Christian Church. He also is tied to Saint Nicholas–whose story was then stuck together with the English “Father Christmas.” In Dutch, Saint Nick was referred to as “Sinterklaas.” After passing “Sinterklaas” through a handful of phonetic adaptations, we end up with “Santa Claus.” 

By 1773, the American colonies began using the name “Santa Claus,” observed in Washington Irving’s 1809 satire History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker. While it’s satire, Irving’s writing is sometimes credited as one of the earliest references to American Christmas tradition.

Santa’s physical description would come about around 1823 with an early version of “The Night Before Christmas,” then referred to as “A Visit From Saint Nicholas.” It’s here that we get the sleigh and chubby appearance. There’s even the reindeer! Though Santa had yet to evolve into his modern form–he was still described as a tiny elf (the reindeer were miniature). If you were wondering why he chose the sleigh, you can credit 1820s Manhattan–aka, that’s how they got around back then.

Santa’s modern appearance would be solidified by 19th century cartoonist, Thomas Nast in 1863.

Saint Nicholas

You might be wondering why Saint Nicholas was conflated with Christmas. Well it’s not really that hard of a connection to make. In the Christian mythology, Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of children, and also known for gift giving. Granted, unlike Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas was known for gifting to those in need. Direct opposition to Santa’s flinging gifts around.

He’s also the patron of a handful of other things, including–but not limited to: prostitutes, sailors, students, brewers, and merchants. 

Modern Santa

The 20th century popularity of Santa would come about with L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in 1902. He was the same guy who did The Wizard of Oz.

You might think that the commercialization of Santa therefore arose with the modern conception of the his mythos in 1902. Some writers credit Santa’s commercialization as early as the 1820s, namely that sleigh thing we mentioned earlier. Because you know, sleigh marketing. There’s also the whole idea of conspicuous consumption. Which, simplified, is basically “I buy expensive things because I want other people to think I’m rich.” 

As such, modern Santa is often criticized as a symbol of conspicuous consumption, thanks to his propensity for giving gifts to everyone. This supposedly indiscriminate gift giving is a great way to push conspicuous consumption. After all, if all the kiddos have to get gifts, someone’s got to buy them. Special hint; it isn’t Santa buying the stuff.

If you don’t think criticizing Santa as a symbol for selling things is valid; talk to Ohio. They have laws prohibiting the use of Santa imagery when selling alcohol

It’s no mistake that Santa has his roots in Christian tradition–he exists to celebrate Christmas, the whole holiday about the birth of Jesus. Heck, Christ is in the name. However, the symbol of Santa probably, more often than not, undermines his original roots to Saint Nicholas. In true American fashion, Santa is a conglomeration of different things (the English, Dutch, etc.). Then he was turned into a symbol for commercialism–but then again, the fact that non-Christians celebrate Christmas was proof enough of that.

So now you know a little more about good old St. Nick. But what about the reindeer? Test yourself here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.