Santa Claus was first introduced to the U.S. by Dutch immigrants.

Dutch immigrants who arrived in Nieuw Amsterdam (now known as New York) with the Nieuw Nederland in the beginning of the 17th century (1624), kept celebrating Sinterklaas in their new country. Later Sinterklaas got renamed into 'Sancta Claus'.

In 'A History of New York' (1809) Washington Irving is the first one who describes 'Sinterklaas' or the way he calls him: 'St. Nicholas'.

Thus, having quietly settled themselves down, and provided for their own comfort, they bethought themselves of testifying their gratitude to the great and good Saint Nicholas, for his protecting care, in guiding them to this delectable abode. To this end they built a fair and goodly chapel within the fort, which they consecrated to his name ; wherupon he immediately took the town of New Amsterdam under his peculiar patronage and he has eve rsince been, and I devoutly hope will ever be, the tutelar saint of this excellent city.

Originally St. Nicholas, also known as 'Nikolaos of Myra', was a fourth century saint and Greek bishop of Myra. St. Nicholas was born in Patara around the year 280. At that time the area was Greek, now it belongs to Turkey. Nikolaos in Greek means 'conqueror of the people'.

Saint Nicholas became an orphan when his parents passed away during an epidemic. They left him a big heritage. That's how he could help poor people out. He was raised by his uncle, the bishop of Patara.

In the book 'Legenda Aurea', written by Jacobus de Voragine (around 1300) a lot of stories about Sinterklaas were written down: He was known for bringing three boys back to life by praying after they had been killed by an innkeeper for their money.  He was also known for helping three poor sisters, by throwing three wallets containing gold through their window, so they wouldn't have to become prostitutes and could use the money as their dowry. In another story he calmed down a rough sea, so the sailors would survive. In a lot of stories he helped poor children by giving them gifts.

These stories made him known as a protector of children, marriages and sailors. A lot of churches in his honor are built near the sea. It also explains why he arrives by boat in the Netherlands.

They believe Saint Nicholas passed away in Myra (now known as Demre, Turkey) on December 6th of the year 343. The day someone passed away was often celebrated starting the evening before. That's why a lot of European people celebrate 'Sinterklaas' on December 5th. Me and my husband visited Myra during our honeymoon. It was a special, but very touristic place. And of course it was just an empty tomb, because Italian sailors stole his remains in 1087 and brought them to Bari, in Italy. This is great for Bari, because this attracts many pilgrims and of course a lot of money too.

Saint Nicholas was a popular Saint in Europe until the Reformation in the 1500's. The Reformation led to the creation of the Protestantism. The Protestants didn't honor Saints.

So why did they decide to celebrate Christmas with Santa Claus? A few men found it important to make the Christian faith more popular. They said these pagan customs were Christian. Probably hoping to win souls to their Christian faith.

It might also have to do with the Friezes (Friezen) who didn't want their customs to be taken away. A Christian man cut down a sacred tree and the Friezes became very angry. After that they decided the Christians could hold on to some of their pagan customs, such as celebrating Wodan. During this feast they celebrated the beginning of Winter with offerings and treats. It had to be a little Christian though and that's why they decided to connect Saint Nicholas to this celebration.

Saint Nicholas still remained an important person in the Netherlands. They kept celebrating Sinterklaas, as is shown on paintings by Jan Steen. There still used to be a 'Sinterklaas markt' in Amsterdam from the 16th - 19th century.

In 1823 (on the 23rd of December) American poet Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) wrote a poem called 'A Visit from St. Nicholas'. This poem is also known as 'Twas the night before Christmas'. Editors have been giving the poem a lot of different titles, such as: 'Christmas Eve', 'Christmas Times', 'Santa Claus' etc. The poem was very popular, it got reprinted four times in three weeks after it's first publication in the Try Sentinel. The poet describes:

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer, With a little old driver, so lively and quick,  I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!  On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen! (Donder means thunder in Dutch and Blitzen comes from 'bliksem', which means lightning. This part of the poem has been revised a lot, the Dutch names became English names).

With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.  He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,  And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;  A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
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,

This was the first poem that described that Saint Nicholas arrived on a sleigh with reindeers. It also is a very different Saint Nicholas than the one we Dutch people know. We know him as a thin, old, wise man with a long grey beard, dressed in a red 'mantel' with a red 'mijter' on his head, driving a horse called Americo. This horse probably comes from Wodan (or Odin) the German God that rode on his grey eight legged horse called 'Sleipnir'. Wodan had two black ravens (Huginn and Muninn) who accompanied him and flew all over the world to bring him information. This is probably where the black Pete's (zwarte Pieten) come from.

 

Robert Walter Weir painted Sinterklaas in 1837. He looks like an elf, no beard, nothing reminds of him being a Saint.

Thomas Nast  (a German native) drew Santa in 1862 for Harper's Weekly. He relied on his knowledge of German folk traditions and drew elves. Thomas was the one that came up with the naughty and nice list,

A lot of people think Coca Cola 'invented' Santa Claus. They were the ones who pictured him the way he looks nowadays, but they most definitely weren't the ones who invented him. Sundblom's Santa debuted in 1931, long after other images of Santa were drawn.

In 1939 Robert L. May invented 'Rudolph the red nose reindeer', by writing a poem to help bring more people into the Montgomery Ward store. We all know how that turned out, because who doesn't know Rudolph?

Filed under: Santa Claus, Sinterklaas

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