Santa Claus. The mere mention of the jolly man brings up images of happy childhoods spent waiting and wishing for the red-suit-clad gift-bringer to leave presents under the Christmas tree for good little boys and girls. We’ve dug up plenty of facts to show that the version of Santa Claus we’re familiar with today didn’t just come out of thin air (as he appears to do on Christmas Eve) but rather is the product of multiple redesigns over almost 1,700 years. Did you know St. Nick is based on an actual saint? (And that the saint lived in a rather hot climate? No penguins and North Pole there.) Did you know that some countries have tried to ban Santa Claus, only to have him never leave the hearts and minds of their people? (That’s Santa’s magic.) This list of unique and largely unknown Santa facts pulls from all aspects of Santa’s existence, especially how he became what we think of him today (portly, driving a sleight with eight reindeer plus Rudolph, eating cookies while his reindeer eat carrots) and dives into the saint from which his story is based. Put some holiday cheer in your step and impress your family this season with these 25 Curious Facts About Santa Claus You Might Not Be Aware Of.
St. Nicholas isn't from the North Pole
Rather, he’s from somewhere much warmer: Greece. St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop living in the third and fourth centuries. Anthropologists recreated his face based on his skull and bones and found that St. Nick’s nose was broken. (This may have led to images of St. Nick with a large, bulbous nose.) Researchers believe the broken nose may have come from the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.
St. Nick as defender of the faith
Despite the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christians, the Greek Nicholas (bishop of Myra, Turkey) persisted in spreading the gospel with a fiery defiance. Later Emperor Constantine supported the spread of Christianity throughout his empire, thus bringing St. Nick out of prison and into infamy.
Santa as a miracle worker
Every year, many Christians celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, Nicholas’ death. He was known to perform miracles in his day which led to a strong following then, (especially) in the Middle Ages, and now.
The origin of Santa as a gift bringer
St. Nicholas was known as a magical gift-bringer and also became a patron saint of children. In one of his best-known stories, Nicholas saw three young sisters prostituting themselves to survive. He secretly brought three bags of gold to their (heavily indebted) father to use as a dowry for their marriages. (The story goes that he put the bags in their stockings.)
St. Nicholas as a righteous man
Frequently told during the Middle Ages though little-known today, St. Nicholas is also said to have visited an inn where the innkeeper had recently murdered three boys, stuffing their body parts in barrels to pickle. It’s said Nicholas knew the crime had been committed the moment he stepped through the door and he brought the three boys back to life.
The tradition of leaving carrots outside
As both the patron saint of children and the famous gift-bringer, St. Nicholas was known to leave coins and gifts in children’s shoes. Children began leaving carrots or hay out for his busy horses as an exchange for the gifts.
Taking St. Nick out of Christmas
As the Protestant Reformation swept across much of central and northern Europe, the popularity of saints rapidly declined. Thus, parents were left without a gift-bringer. Many families and countries changed their bringer of presents to baby Jesus, often helped by a large, sometimes scary, helper. (For one of the scariest, look into the Krampus in Germany.)
Gift-giving changes days
When the focus went from St. Nick to the baby Jesus, the day children received gifts also changed, moving from December 6th – The Feast of St. Nicholas – to December 25th.
The origin of Kris Kringle
The German word Christkindl means “Christ child” and, over time, was turned into a name we’re more familiar with: Kris Kringle.
The first department store Santa
Macy’s department store Santa is so popular Macy’s even sponsors the Thanksgiving Day Parade to welcome the big man to their stores. But Macy’s didn’t create the idea of a department store Santa. That honor goes to James Edgar, owner of Edgar Department Store, who first dressed as Santa Claus in 1890 as a publicity stunt (and to entertain customers’ children). The stunt worked and families from across the state and New England came to visit Santa in store.
Santa's flying power and eight-legged reindeer (wait…one, eight-legged reindeer?!)
The Norse god Odin likely contributed to the development of Santa Claus. Odin would fly around on his eight-legged horse (thought to have led to Santa’s eight reindeer) Sleipnir. The god would distribute either gifts or punishment to children, all of whom were wise to fill their stockings with treats for Sleipnir.
The origin of Santa's red suit
One of the primary ways Santa Claus came to wear a red suit was due to Nicholas’ religious position. As a bishop, Nicholas would wear a red bishop’s cloak. Later storytellers (see #10 to #7) kept the red robes as they fleshed out our modern-day conceptions of Santa.
The Dutch keep Santa alive
While many parts of Europe were eliminating St. Nicholas in favor of the baby Jesus gift-bringer, the Netherlands kept the tradition alive with their own version of a character who brought gifts: Sinterklaas. Dutch emigrants later brought this chimney-visiting image to the United States.
Christmas with too much rum cake
As the United States was born, most families disliked and even didn’t celebrate Christmas. The version celebrated in England and the colonies was a bacchanalian, outdoor rager where guests would become drunk and rowdy.
St. Nick almost on par with Jesus' mother
Out of all the religious saints, St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus) is depicted by artists more than any other saint except Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Santa becomes a pipe-smoking, flying bringer of presents
The first recorded depiction of Santa Claus as the nighttime flying gift-giver dates to Washington Irving’s book “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” published in 1809. Irving tells of a pipe-smoking man flying over rooftops in his aerial wagon.
Secularization turns St. Nicholas into Santa Claus
The anonymously published “The Children’s Friend” in 1821 was the penultimate formation of the Santa we’re more familiar with. The author removed St. Nicholas’ religious aspects, kept the gift-giving, and added a single wagon-pulling reindeer and the heavy coat and garb of northern and central European Clauses.
Our favorite Christmas story which built the Santa story
“A Visit From St. Nicholas” (AKA “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) by Clement Clarke Moore was originally published anonymously in 1822. Americans loved the story so much (including, for the first time, eight reindeer pulling a sleigh) that it became our primary basis for conceptions of Santa.
Santa Claus becomes who we recognize today
The Santa Claus we’re familiar with today comes from a cartoonist. (That’s sticking it to teachers every time they said to stop drawing cartoons in class.) Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist in the late 1800’s, depicted Kris Kringle as the red-fur-coat-wearing, chubby, paternal man we know today.
Santa goes back to Europe
In the late 19th century, the continent which first housed and developed St. Nicholas was then reintroduced to the jolly gift-bringer, a departure from scarier Christmas-time characters. (Did you look up the Krampus yet? It’s absolutely terrifying.) Europeans adopted the American conception of Santa Claus, often naming him Father Christmas in their own languages.
The legendary Coca-Cola advertisement
One of the better-known Santa Claus facts, a 1931 Coca-Cola advertisement became the final version of St. Nick we mostly celebrate today. Illustrator Haddon Sundblom was responsible for creating the polished black-leather boots and thick white-fur trim that continue to dominate Coke ads and our conception of Santa.
Mrs. Claus comes on the scene
Santa flew solo until 1849 when James Rees’ “A Christmas Legend” first introduced Santa’s wife and partner, Mrs. Claus. For the next half-century, Santa’s spouse continued to pop up in various publications until Katherine Lee Bates’ 1899 poem, “Goody [Mrs.] Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride”, embedded the warm and caring Mrs. Claus into the public psyche.
Countries which shun the jolly gift-giver
A variety of countries prefer to keep the red-nosed, jolly Santa Claus out of their Christmas celebrations, preferring their own local version of Christmas gift bringers. Two such examples are the Netherlands where Sinterklaas is seen at parades throughout December and southern Germany and northern Austria where the Krampus frequently visits Christmas markets.
How the Japanese celebrate Christmas
In Japan, a Buddhist priest known as Hoteiosho is the gift-bringer. Known for having eyes in the back of his head (to watch if children are being good), Hoteiosho is a benevolent-looking old man who carries around a massive sack to reward good boys and girls. (Oh, and today, fried chicken is massively popular in Japan on Christmas Eve and Day.)
The Soviet Union changes Santa
The last fact on our list of odd Santa facts comes to us from a place cold enough to house the big man. After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union banned Santa Claus – Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz in Russian – and any celebration of Christmas. The then-unpopular Joseph Stalin brought Grandfather Frost back in the 1930’s but changed his gift-giving to New Year’s in an attempt to drum up public support and secularize the holiday. Wherever the Soviets went across Europe, they tried to spread a blue-coated version of the secularized Santa Claus. But, thankfully for traditional Santa lovers, the new version never stuck.