St. Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773, a New York newspaper reported that groups of families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.
The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). In 1804 New York Historical Society member John Pintard distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. The background of the engraving contains now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys hung over a fireplace. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories. He referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York.
Shopping Mall Santas
Gift-giving, mainly centered around children, has been an important part of the Christmas celebration. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820. By the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements. These ads often featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. Stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a “live” Santa Claus. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money for Christmas meals provided to needy families. They began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets to solicit donations. Those familiar Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells on the street corners of American cities ever since.
‘Twas The Night Before Christmas
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” Moore’s poem, which he was initially hesitant to publish due to the frivolous nature of its subject, is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf” with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head! Moore helped popularize the now-familiar image of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve–in “a miniature sleigh” led by eight flying reindeer–leaving presents for deserving children.
“An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” created a new and immediately popular American icon. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. Nast gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.
A Santa By Any Other Name
18th-century America’s Santa Claus was not the only St. Nicholas-inspired gift-giver to make an appearance at Christmastime. Similar figures were popular all over the world. Christkind or Kris Kringle was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. Meaning “Christ child,” Christkind is an angel-like figure often accompanied by St. Nicholas on his holiday missions. In Scandinavia, a jolly elf named Jultomten was thought to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. English legend explains that Father Christmas visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill children’s stockings with holiday treats.
Père Noël is responsible for filling the shoes of French children. In Russia, it is believed that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem so that they couldn’t find Jesus. Later, she felt remorseful, but could not find the men to undo the damage. To this day, on January 5, Babouschka visits Russian children leaving gifts at their bedsides in the hope that one of them is the baby Jesus and she will be forgiven. In Italy, a similar story exists about a woman called La Befana, a kindly witch who rides a broomstick down the chimneys of Italian homes to deliver toys into the stockings of lucky children.
Source: Santa Claus – HISTORY.com