The fat jolly man who delivers toys to all the good children in the world in just one night is known by different names in different countries. English-speakers mostly refer to him as Santa Claus or Father Christmas. The name Santa Claus actually comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas or Sint Nicolaas.
Saint Nicholas was born in the third century in a part of Greece that’s now Turkey. His life was devoted to helping the sick and the needy, especially children. Eventually he became the bishop of the city of Myra, which no longer exists. He died on December 6 – the day was dedicated to him.
From the 13th century on it became common custom for bishops to hand out small gifts to kids on December 6. In many countries, December 6 is still the day on which gifts are exchanged.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that the spirit of Christmas became personified in the shape of a fat, bearded man dressed in green fur-lined robes – this gave rise to the figure of Father Christmas (also known as Sir Christmas or Lord Christmas). But this guy wasn’t (yet) associated with riding around in a sleigh and giving gifts to children.
It was in North America that the modern image of Santa Claus was born, as all the separate stories and myths about Christmas were merged by the early colonists to the United States. In 1809 Washington Irving translated Sinterklaas to Santa Claus in his History of New York. This figure was given further shape by the classic poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, which is known today as The Night Before Christmas, published in a New York newspaper in 1823. (The same poem gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus’s reindeer.)
It’s a huge myth that the Coca-Cola company’s famous Christmas ad campaigns in the 1930s first introduced Santa Claus’s red costume. This tradition actually started in 1885 when a Christmas card designed by Louis Prang in Boston went on sale.
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