The Origin Story of Santa Claus Traces Back to Third Century Christian Beliefs

Santa Claus and his entire identity are synonymous with Christmastime for millions, but was he ever actually a real person? Here's what we know.

Chris Barilla - Author

Dec. 24 2021, Published 5:00 p.m. ET

Santa Claus
Source: Getty Images

If you celebrate Christmas yearly in the U.S., then odds are that you've heard the story of Santa Claus ever since you could consciously process thought. Indeed, Santa and Christmas are uniquely intertwined in a way that only a few others are (we're looking at you, Easter Bunny), and although many know Santa as the jolly present-giver who loves cookies, there's a lot more to him than the commercialized modern version.

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So, was Santa Claus ever actually a real person, and how did the modern iteration of the lore around him come to be? Keep reading for a complete breakdown of the genesis of everyone's favorite sleigh rider.

Santa's treat
Source: Getty Images
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Was Santa Claus ever actually a real person?

The Santa as the world knows him today is far from how his story began. Back in the third century, biblical figurehead St. Nicholas was alive and impacting the world. Born sometime around 280 A.D. in what is now modern-day Turkey, St. Nicholas has quite a few legends that surround him. It has been said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled around helping the poor and sick.

Another well-known story about St. Nicholas is that he once saved a trio of poor sisters from being sold into slavery by their father. He gave the man a dowry for each woman so that all could be married, sparing them a life of hardship.

St. Nicholas's identity became aligned with protecting children and sailors over time, and by the Renaissance era, he was the most popular saint in all of Europe.

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How did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus in the U.S.?

It wasn't until the end of the 18th century that Santa Claus as we know him today began taking shape in the American public consciousness. Evolving from the Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, Santa didn't catch on immediately in the new world.

The first recorded mention of the saint in the U.S. was in December 1773 when, per History, a New York newspaper reported on Dutch families who had gathered in honor of the anniversary of St. Nicholas's death.

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Santa Claus
Source: Getty Images

Then came New York Historical Society member John Pintard, who decided to distribute wooden cut-outs of St. Nicholas at a meeting. In the cutouts, Santa can be seen flanked by stockings filled with gifts, the earliest known incarnation of Santa as a holiday figure in the U.S.

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That still wasn't the selling moment for people at the time, however, because Christmas in general had gone out of style up until the early 1800s. However, that wasn't the case forever, and Christmas cheer soon hit the U.S.

Stores began advertising Christmas shopping sometime around 1820, and early holiday advertisements featured images of a Santa, but the character was largely up to individual interpretation at that time.

It wasn't until Clement Clarke Moore's 1822 Christmas poem "Twas The Night Before Christmas" that we finally got close to what today's Santa looks like.

Even with that, it took again until 1881 for political cartoonist Thomas Nast to draw an almost exact image of how we still depict Santa today.

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