During Christmastime, some families have a reading of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Children sit with curious fascination when hearing the story, while adults reminisce about hearing their parents read it years before. We imagine the jolly St. Nicholas shoehorning himself in and out of the chimney, we hear his booming laugh once his gift-giving duties are complete. Of course, much of this is romanticized, as imagining practical concerns ruin the image (How is he still healthy after all these years with little exercise? How could he not have lung cancer, after all his smoking and working in and around sooty chimneys? And how does he fund all of his activities around the world? The North Pole secretly must have the world’s biggest economy!)
For years, this timeless story—allegedly written by Clement Clarke Moore, but which may have been authored by Henry Livingston, Jr.—has captured the imaginations of men and women, girls and boys. So who is this St. Nicholas, originally?
Although we refer to him by many different names, the entities known as St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and Father Christmas are not the same. Each one is a distinct person, although they merged over time.
The real St. Nicholas was a Turkish bishop from the city of Myra. History remembers him as a generous benefactor who gave money to the poor. In one famous incident, Nicholas reputedly gave three bags of gold to a man who had suffered bankruptcy and could not afford the dowries for his three daughters. As we might expect from a figure like Nicholas, legends about him began to appear over the centuries. One of the most famous is a story in which he slapped the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicea in 325. Nicholas was the exemplification of charity, it seems, but not exactly the ideal model for conflict resolution. He is thought to have died on 6 December 343 and was later made a saint.
Santa Claus has a convoluted history. He is very loosely rooted in the historical Saint Nicholas with influences from the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas. He is a relatively recent figure, whose popular depictions today only go back a couple of centuries. It wasn’t until the 1820s that he was depicted flying through the sky on a sled pulled by reindeer (the appearance of the reindeer are reminiscent of the immortal goats that pulled the chariot of Thor). Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer didn’t appear until the 1930s. During colonial days, Santa appeared as thin and beardless but got increasingly plump as time went on. Washington Irving portrayed him as a stocky Dutchman, and cartoonist Thomas Nast famously reimagined him as a jolly fat man smoking a pipe in 1863.
Kris Kringle is a corrupted version of the German Christkind (“Christchild”), a figure popular in Western Europe. This figure is also popular in some Catholic countries. He appears as a childlike Jesus or angelic figure bearing gifts.
Father Christmas was Christmas personified in England. Depictions of him from the 1800s bear an uncanny resemblance to the Spirit of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. He seems to have been connected more with adult feasting, games, and celebration with no connection to children. He did not bring presents at night or fill stockings hanging near the chimney with little gifts. It was only in Victorian England that Father Christmas began to take on more of a family-friendly persona. By the early 1900s, Father Christmas and Santa Claus were considered one and the same, although Britons seem to prefer the former.
We don’t know much about the real Saint Nicholas. We have none of his writings, and historical accounts of his life seem to contain at least some legendary material. Historical sources that do mention him have elements that generate some legitimate historical questions. However, he does seem to have lived a life that impressed those who knew him. I would hope that we could all live such a life—that, years after we leave this world, might have stories told about us. Stories that tell others about our faithfulness, our generosity, and our commitment to be like the Christ who died for us.