The “merry old elf” that we picture today is a mixture of actual history, saintly stories, folk tales, Charles Dickens, Clement Moore, and marketing — from the tip of his red cap to the toe of his black boots.
The oldest pieces of Santa Claus are the stories told about the historical Nikolaos of Myra, a fourth century A.D. saint and Greek bishop. He piously gave away his inheritance to help others, the most famous case being that of a poor father with three daughters whose dowries were provided anonymously by the saint.
He is a patron of both sailors and children, plus several countries.
The curious name switch from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus came through a custom of Dutch Protestants in New Amsterdam that was popularized by author Bret Harte.
Father Christmas, who is now generally mixed up with Santa Claus, has roots in English folklore, “first appearing in the mid 17th century in the aftermath of the English Civil War” when Christmas was outlawed by the Puritan-controlled English government prior to the Restoration. (Shades of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which Narnia is trapped in an unending Winter that never gets to Christmas!)
Some aspects of our current idea of Santa Claus are imported from the Charles Dickens ghost story “A Christmas Carol” in which stingy old Scrooge is confronted by three ghosts and learns how to properly keep Christmas.
Of course, the names of his reindeer are lifted lock, stock, and barrel from Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” — which is where my opening quote originated.
But in that poem, Santa is a little fellow — with reindeer and a sleigh to match.
Our picture of Santa as a tall, robust red-robed fellow cannot be laid solely at the doorstep of a marketing campaign by Coca Cola, in which Santa grew from a wee elf to a six-foot tall giant who needed magic to fit down a chimney! The Saturday Evening Post did a lot to popularize Santa with covers illustrated by Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker.
These days, there is even an organization of real bearded Santas — the IBRBS — whose mission is “To keep Christmas magic in the hearts of children of all ages by creating an international Christmas community.” Members of the group are quite serious and solemn about upholding ho-ho-ho standards! (Here I tip my poinsettia-red fedora to Buena Park’s resident Santa with a Real Beard.)
We will also recall the fabulous unsigned editorial response by the New York Sun to its young reader, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, that upheld the honor of Santa’s helpers all around the world. The editorial (by Francis Pharcellus Church, originally published on Sep. 21, 1897) has been reprinted so many times that just about everybody knows at least the first sentence of its second paragraph: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”