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The History of Santa Claus

This year, The Rock at Boston College is doing the season of joy in a big way by generating new content every day in our first ever “25 Days of Christmas”. The Rock is proud to present this installment in our holiday special.

Yes, you know-it-all college student, Santa Claus is real. He is in our hearts, or something.

Santa Claus is an iconic figure throughout the holiday season. From late-November through December, Santa Claus rules supreme above all other mythical beings. But how exactly did the modern Santa Claus come into existence? Surely Jesus didn’t proclaim of a fat man in a red suit with a big white beard. A man that, once a year on December 25th, comes around to all the good little boys and girls and leaves them materialistic goods to show them how important it is to be fashionable and technologically current. No, the Santa Claus as we know it grew from something else…

The history of the modern-day Santa Claus begins in 280 AD with the birth of the man who would become St. Nicholas in the city of Lycia in Asia Minor. St. Nicholas was a Christian priest, and later Bishop, who was quite wealthy and traveled the country. In his travels, he helped people by giving gifts of money and other presents, but he did not like to be seen doing so. In order to give gifts in secret, St. Nicholas would wait until nighttime to leave them for those in need.

Have you ever wondered where our tradition of putting up stockings comes from? A famous story goes like this: a poor man had nothing to give his three daughters on their wedding day, so in order to help the man, St. Nicholas placed bags of gold in the daughters’ stockings they had left out to dry. Now, children hang up stockings every year in hopes that Santa Claus will put some gifts in them on Christmas morning.

St. Nicholas gained so much fame during his lifetime that Diocletian commanded all the citizens of the Roman Empire worship him as a god in the year 303 AD. After Christians of the time refused to worship Nicholas (because they believe in only one God), Diocletian threatened to imprison them. Keeping true to this threat, the Christians were imprisoned, ironically including St. Nicholas who also resisted. St. Nicholas was released when Constantine came into power in 313 AD and died on December 6, 343. The name “Santa Claus” originates from the Dutch pronunciation of St. Nicholas, “Sinter Klass,” which evolved into “Santa Klass,” and was finalized as “Santa Claus. “ Early Dutch settlers in New York brought these Christmas traditions to America.

santa-and-rudolphIn America, Santa Claus was commercialized through music, newspaper articles, and drawings. The Coca-Cola Company advertised their beverage with the Santa Claus image, Francis P. Church wrote the article “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” [New York Sun, 1897], and Johnny Marks wrote the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Continual commercialization and capitalistic encouragement pushed Christmas into being more than just a Christian holiday, and into a worldwide celebration. The legacy of St. Nicholas, a mortal man that simply helped those in need, evolved into a holiday icon that ~2 billion people celebrate each year.

Merry Christmas everyone! (Or whatever doesn’t offend you.)

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