The Origins of Santa Claus

Antique Santa
Renphoto / Getty Images

Ho ho ho! Once the Yule season rolls around, you can't shake a sprig of mistletoe without seeing images of a chubby man in a red suit. Santa Claus is everywhere, and although he's traditionally associated with the Christmas holiday, his origins can be traced back to a blend of an early Christian bishop (and later saint) and a Norse deity. Let's take a look at where the jolly old guy came from.

Did You Know?

  • Santa Claus is heavily influenced by St. Nicholas, a 4th century bishop who became the patron saint of children, the poor, and prostitutes.
  • Some scholars have compared to the legends of Santa's reindeer to Odin's magical horse, Sleipnir.
  • Dutch settlers brought the tradition of Santa Claus to the New World, and left shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with gifts.

Early Christian Influence

Although Santa Claus is primarily based upon St. Nicholas, a 4th-century Christian bishop from Lycia (now in Turkey), the figure is also strongly influenced by early Norse religion. Saint Nicholas was known for giving gifts to the poor. In one notable story, he met a pious but impoverished man who had three daughters. He presented them with dowries to save them from a life of prostitution. In most European countries, St. Nicholas is still portrayed as a bearded bishop, wearing clerical robes. He became a patron saint of many groups, particularly children, the poor, and prostitutes.

In the BBC Two feature film, "The Real Face of Santa," archaeologists used modern forensics and facial reconstruction techniques to get an idea of what St. Nicholas might have actually looked like. According to National Geographic, "The remains of the Greek bishop, who lived in the third and fourth centuries, are housed in Bari, Italy. When the crypt at the Basilica San Nicola was repaired in the 1950s, the saint's skull and bones were documented with x-ray photos and thousands of detailed measurements."

Sinterklaas arriving in The Netherlands for the Sint Nicolaas festival
Sjoerd van der Wal / Getty Images

Odin and His Mighty Horse

Among early Germanic tribes, one of the major deities was Odin, the ruler of Asgard. A number of similarities exist between some of Odin's escapades and those of the figure who would become Santa Claus. Odin was often depicted as leading a hunting party through the skies, during which he rode his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. In the 13th-century Poetic Edda, Sleipnir is described as being able to leap great distances, which some scholars have compared to the legends of Santa's reindeer. Odin was typically portrayed as an old man with a long, white beard — much like St. Nicholas himself.

Treats for the Tots

During the winter, children placed their boots near the chimney, filling them with carrots or straw as a gift for Sleipnir. When Odin flew by, he rewarded the little ones by leaving gifts in their boots. In several Germanic countries, this practice survived despite the adoption of Christianity. As a result, the gift-giving became associated with St. Nicholas — only nowadays, we hang stockings rather than leaving boots by the chimney!

Antique Santa
Renphoto / Getty Images

Santa Comes to the New World

When Dutch settlers arrived in New Amsterdam, they brought with them their practice of leaving shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with gifts. They also brought the name, which later morphed into Santa Claus.

The authors of the website for the St. Nicholas Center say,

"In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, 'Knickerbocker's History of New York,' with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving's work was regarded as the 'first notable work of imagination in the New World."

It was about 15 years later that the figure of Santa as we know it today was introduced. This came in the form of a narrative poem by a man named Clement C. Moore.

Moore's poem, originally titled "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is commonly known today as "​Twas the Night Before Christmas." Moore went as far as to elaborate on the names of Santa's reindeer, and provided a rather Americanized, secular description of the "jolly old elf."

According to,

"Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. It was only a matter of time before stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a “live” Santa Claus."
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Wigington, Patti. "The Origins of Santa Claus." Learn Religions, Sep. 8, 2021, Wigington, Patti. (2021, September 8). The Origins of Santa Claus. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "The Origins of Santa Claus." Learn Religions. (accessed June 7, 2023).