Our 21st century Father Christmas is based on a real person – St. Nicholas, a 4th century Bishop of  Myra, the capital of the province of Lycia in Asia Minor, which was then part of the Roman Empire and today is in Turkey.

We know very little about him as the only information we have can be gleaned from biographies that were written a long time after his death – in one case 500 years afterwards. Butler’s Lives of the Saints says that the only certain facts are that he was the Bishop of Myra and that his alleged relics were stolen by Italian merchants in 1087 and now rest in coastal town of Bari, the capital of the Puglia in southern Italy. They are in the Basilica di San Nicola which took over a hundred years to build and was finally consecrated  in 1197. Today the Basilica attracts  many pilgrims, especially Roman Catholics and member of the Russian and Eastern Orthodox Churches, testimony to St. Nicholas’ continuing popularity as a saint.

Barrington’s Atlas of the Greek and Roman World Plate 65

In the many accounts of his life we are told that he was born in city of Patara in Lycia which is close to the modern day Turkish city of Gelemis in the province of Anatalya. Patara was a major sea port and its location suggests that it would have been a stopping point for Greeks, Romans and anyone making the sea journey from west to east, or vice versa – in the 4th century  sea travel was much easier than travelling overland.

The Times Atlas of the World Plate 39

St. Nicholas’ parents are said to have died when he was young and to have left him a wealthy young man (it isn’t clear their wealth came from – maybe they were merchants?), and being a kind, generous person, and a Christian, he choose not to spend money on himself but to use his inheritance for the good of others. There are numerous stories about his benevolence, generosity and compassion.St.Nicholas also had a great sense of fairness and justice which often led him to intervene in a court case if he thought the  person had been condemned unjustly, and he would make representations to the governors and even the emperor.

He was appointed Bishop of Myra (close to present day Demre) but again we don’t know exactly when and  he was briefly imprisoned, and possibly exiled,  during the  persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Diocletian. He was freed and returned to Myra after Constantine the Great became the emperor in the early 4th century. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and he restored Christian property that had previously been  confiscated, built imperially-sponsored churches in Rome and began the process whereby the Roman Empire was to evolve into a Christian state.

Nicholas’ generosity, kindness and sense of justice have made him a very popular saint with around four hundred of churches dedicated to him in England alone. One of the many stories about him is that he heard of an impoverished  father who, as he was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters, had decide to sell them into slavery and prostitution. Under cover of darkness, for three nights in a row, Nicholas managed to throw a bag of coins through the window, thus saving the girls from a life of shame. This story led to him becoming the saint of maidens and fruitful marriage and is the origin of his symbol which is three golden  balls. This has also become the symbol for pawnbrokers*.

St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of:

  • sailors
  • children
  • pawnbrokers
  • merchants
  • orphans
  • and of  Russia, Greece, Puglia, Sicily, Lorraine amongst other places.
Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus

But, to go back to our original question …

St.Nicholas popularity increased over the centuries, with  stories of his miracles and episodes from his  life being  popular subjects for medieval dramas. After  the Reformation it was only in the Protestant countries of Europe that devotion to him remained widespread, and his feast day of 6th December was celebrated with the giving of gifts to children. When the Dutch colonists went to the New World  they took these traditions with them to New Amsterdam (New York City) where they grew and evolved. At some point St. Nicholas (or Sinterklass as he is known in Dutch) became combined with an old Nordic fairy tale of a magician (hence his residence at the North Pole) who rewarded good children with gifts, and with the Germanic idea of a gift bringer. Santa Claus, as he became in the English-speaking colonies, has been with us ever since with his popularity growing in 19th century as Christmas once again became a more important  festival and the customs we have today came into being. A couple of American writers in the early 19th century published books in which we see the beginning of the Father Christmas that we know today. These included Washington Irving’s  Knickerbocker’s History of New York, published in 1809, in which he is portrayed as a pipe-smoking Nicholas flying over the rooftops of the city delivering presents to children from his wagon.

The poem A Visit from St. Nicholas was written by Clement C Moore in 1822 for his children though there is some dispute as to whether it was written by him as it first appeared anonymously and didn’t appear under his authorship until 1844 when it was published in a collection of his poems. The poem has gone on to be published as a children’s book under the title  The Night Before Christmas. This has become a Christmas classic and it established the idea of St. Nicholas delivering presents on Christmas Eve climbing down of the chimneys and having reindeer and a sleigh.
The Night Before Christmas

The American cartoonist Thomas Nast, inspired by Moore’s poem, drew a genial, white-bearded grandfatherly figure for Harper’s Weekly in 1863. This seems to be where the idea of his red and white garments came from. Later on in 1931 the illustrator Haddon Sundblum created Santa Claus advertisements for Coca-Cola in which he was dressed a  in a red suit with a black belt and white fur trim, black boots, and a soft red cap.

In the late 19th century and 20th century Santa Claus became increasingly popular throughout Europe, though St. Nicholas’ feast day had continued to be celebrated in the Low Countries and Germany. In France he is know as Père Noël and in Britain he has been combined with the figure of Father Christmas. In the 21st century he is still as popular as ever and there is no sign of this diminishing.

Father Christmas

The earliest written evidence of a figure personifying Christmas, just as Old Father Thames personifies the Thames, is a carol written by a Devon Rector, Richard Smart, in the mid 15th century, though the idea would obviously have predated the carol, in which he is called Sir Christmas. In Ben Jonson‘s 1616 court entertainment Christmas and his Masque, Christmas appears with his sons: Misrule, Carol, Mince Pie, Gambol, Post and Pan, New Year’s Gift, Mumming, Wassail and Baby Cake. He is mentioned in John Taylor‘s poem Christmas In and Out from 1652. Taylor was a Royalist and the poem was a piece of  pro-Christmas Royalist satire written at a time when the Puritans were trying to restrict the celebration of Christmas.

Father Christmas personified the festive  celebrations and revelry and his  role as a bringer of presents didn’t develop until the 1870s when his identity began to merge with that of Santa Claus.

Celebrating St. Nicholaus’ Day
In the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium St. Nicholas’ feast day on 6th December is still celebrated. In Germany, on the evening of the 5th December, children hang up stockings in the hope they will wake in the morning, on Nikolaustag, to find them filled with sweets and small toys.
Special Christmas biscuits, called Speculass in the Netherlands, are baked for St. Nicholas’s Eve on 5th December. Pastries called Banketletters,  made of flaky pastry and filled with almond paste, and then cut into letters are also made. The commonest letters are S for Sinterklass (Santa Claus), M for Moeder (Mother)-these are  customary present for Dutch men on 6th December.
So, as you  hang up your stocking and put out mince pies on Christmas Eve remember the kind, generous St.Nicholas who lived in the 4th century and without whom Christmas would be very different.

*In the early 14th century montes pietatis, precursors to today’s pawnbrokers,  were established by Franciscan friars, to help the poor. They gave low-interest loans to poor families so they could buy food.  Because St. Nicholas was recognized for his generosity and concern for the poor he became the patron saint of the montes pietatis.

Santa Claus trivia

The first mention of Santa Claus in The Times newspaper was  on 29th May 1861 when a horse of that name was running in the Heathcote Plate at the Epsom races.

Bibiliography and suggested reading
Butler’s Lives of the Saints Dec

Barrington’s Atlas of the Greek and Roman World
Butler’s Lives of the Saints: December
A Dictionary of English Folklore
Father Christmas

Germany: Lonely Planet
New Catholic Encyclopedia

The Night before Christmas
The Oxford Classical Dictionary
The Oxford Companion to Food

The Rough Guide to Italy
The Times Atlas of the World




Sources and related links

Basilica di San Nicola
History Today article: The Puritan war on Christmas
National Geographic article: Saint Nicholas to Santa: the Surprising  Origins of Mr Claus

Poetry Foundation: Clement Clarke Moore

Father Christmas

Library members can access the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the people listed above by clicking on the hyperlinks in the text. The Times Digital Archive is  also available to library members.

[Fiona Campbell, Library Assistant]