The chubby, cheerful, white-bearded Santa Claus of today did not always appear as he does today. The origin and appearance of the modern saint go back centuries.
The name of Santa Claus originally came from the Latin name Sanctus Nicolaus. Through the many years and in different countries, his name takes many forms, some of which are Sankt Nikolaus (German), Sinter Klaas (Dutch), and, of course, the modern name of Santa Claus.
Not A Myth, But A Man
A Christian bishop by the name of St. Nicholas lived during the fourth century. He was born around A.D. 270 in the province of Lycia in Asia Minor. He showed acts of kindness and charity early in his life. Coming from a family of wealth, he secretly shared this bounty with the poor, usually at night.
St. Nicholas was orphaned early in his life and decided to dedicate his life to God. While still a youth, he was selected to become a bishop. St. Nicholas became the patron saint and provider of gifts to children in France, Austria, Holland and Germany.
St. Nicholas was known for his generosity, which associates him with the Santa Claus of modern times.
A Poem Began the Image of "Santa Claus"
Dr. Clement C. Moore wrote a poem called A Visit from St. Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas) to honor the real man from history. On December 22, 1822, he read the poem to his children. The following year, a friend had the poem published in the Sentinel, Troy, New York.
The poem altered the image of St. Nicholas from a saint to a jolly old elf. Santa Claus had reindeers, flew through the sky in this sleigh, and delivered gifts to little boys and girls by slipping down the chimney.
In 1863, the first visual American image of Santa Claus would be drawn by cartoonist, Thomas Nast. The red, fur-trimmed suited Santa Claus appeared in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly through 1866 as the "jolly, round-bellied, white-bearded, fur-clad embodiment of good cheer" and the rest is history.