St Nick’s makeover

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Destination New York

Santa received his final makeover in New York, where he became the ho-ho-ho character we know today, and made his home at the North Pole. The change from Nicholas, Christian saint, to Santa, pagan gift-giver, was complete!

 Santa Claus (merry elf) as drawn by Thomas Nast, late 19th century.

It was in New York that Sinterklaas received his final makeover, transforming him into the Santa that we know and… er… love.

The first Europeans who settled in what is now New York were Dutch traders, and they named their settlement New Amsterdam. And naturally, they brought all the customs of the old country with them, including good old Sinterklaass.

After just 40 years, the Dutch colony was captured by the British and renamed New York. The customs surrounding Sinterklaas were taken up by the British colonists and his name gradually changed to Santa Claus.

Two more developments put the icing on Santa’s cake. On Christmas Eve 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy landowner in New York, went out on his chauffeur-driven sleigh to fetch an extra turkey for Christmas. As he was driven, with the jingle-jingle of the sleigh bells in his ears, he started writing a poem that quickly became the poem about Santa Claus…

‘Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring – not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there…

The poem, called A Visit from St Nicholas (click the link to the right for the full version), was hugely popular and contained lots of the Christmassy details about Santa: he arrives on the rooftop in a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen); he leaps down the chimney with a bundle of toys in a sack on his back; and he looks just like any modern Santa…

He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself…

Clement Moore had basically turned St Nick into a Dutch elf and had de-Christianized him in the process! He was now as pagan a figure as he had ever been in northern Europe – the magical figure who turns up in the dead of winter bearing gifts.

It took only one more step for St Nick to become Santa Claus, and that was done in the mid 19th century by a New York illustrator, Thomas Nast, who drew Santa with his rotund figure, tunic and trousers, and jolly, ho-ho-ho face (as seen in the picture at the top of this page). Nast also gave Santa his home at the North Pole, and came up with the idea of Santa’s toy workshop, staffed by elves.

Today, children all over the world write to “Santa Claus, North Pole” at Christmas, and it’s estimated that there might be as many as 1 million such letters posted each year. And some 20,000 people go to meet Santa in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, inside the Arctic Circle.

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About this module

Santa Claus, who appears all over the place at towards the end of the year, raises so many questions. Who is he? Where on earth did he come from? Why the red suit?

In this special rejesus investigation, we look at the saint behind it all, St Nick.

Written by Simon Jenkins

Categories: Lives, Biographical, Poetry, Seasonal,


Module contents

arrow Introduction

arrow Turkish delight

arrow The Dutch connection

arrow Destination New York

arrow A visit from St Nicholas

arrow What do Christians think of Santa

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