Being Santa Claus


The History of Santa Claus and Christmas

The legends, customs, and traditions of Christmas and Santa Claus are many and varied around the world. But they have also changed over time. Let’s go back to the beginning and trace the evolution of Christmas and Santa Claus over the centuries…
Was Saint Nicholas a real man?
Born around the year 280 A.D., St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a town in what is now Turkey. The only son of wealthy Christian parents who died from a plague while he was still very young, Nicholas was raised by his uncle, the Bishop of Patara. Very religious from an early age, Nicholas believed strongly in the Christian doctrine of charity for the less fortunate. Legend has it that, as an adult, Bishop Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.
The secret origin of Christmas stockings
There is a famous story that says Saint Nicholas once saved three sisters from being sold into slavery by providing them a dowry so they could be married. The legend tells of St. Nicholas wanting his gift to the sisters to stay anonymous. So instead of just handing the money to them, he tossed a purse of gold coins through an open window, and it landed in a stocking drying by the fire. (Sound familiar?) Based on retellings of this story, as early as 1700 years ago, children would hang stockings or leave their shoes out in hopes that Saint Nicholas would visit in the night and give them coins.
Saint Nicholas, the Patron Saint of…?
Bishop Nicholas of Myra died on December 6, 343 AD, and within a century, he was canonized by the Church as Saint Nicholas. He is most commonly known in the West as the patron saint of children. But Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors. In Greece, you will often hear sailors wish each other luck by saying, “May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller.” Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia in 987 AD. Saint Nicholas is also known as the patron saint of the wrongfully condemned, showing his desire for true justice for all.  As time went on, Nicholas later became the patron saint of merchants, archers, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students in various cities and countries around Europe.  So if you’re studying for an important test in class, it never hurts to say a little prayer to Saint Nick!
Winter festivals predate Christmas by thousands of years!
Although Christmas celebrations are generally accepted to have “evolved” from the raucous Roman holiday of Saturnalia—usually celebrated at the end of December—winter solstice festivals went on throughout Europe literally for millennia before the rise of Rome. The winter solstice was very important to ancient people as they began to rely on agriculture and growing their own food. Neolithic sites like Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland were built to mark the shortest day of the year, and people would gather to celebrate the upcoming lengthening of daylight hours and the welcome arrival of planting and growing season (and warmer weather!). In Northern Europe, the Scandinavian and Germanic Feast of Juul (or Yule) also marked the winter solstice with a celebration that often lasted as long as twelve days. Many Juul/Yule traditions eventually became aspects of Christmas celebrations, as well.
Yule rules!
The ancient Scandinavian and Germanic Feast of Juul (or Yule), celebrated during the winter solstice, included many customs that still carry on to this very day as part of the traditional Christmas holiday. Evergreens were hung around doorways and windows to represent everlasting life. They were also twisted into wreaths to represent the wheel of life and hung on doors or laid horizontally under candles. Mistletoe, considered to be a protective and healing plant, was always hung and never allowed to touch the ground. The reason was that its magical properties were considered to stem from mistletoe residing “between heaven and earth.” Holly was another protective evergreen, believed to repel negative energies with its spiky bristles. A Yule Tree was brought inside the home and decorated with food and treats for the wood spirits to enjoy. The bottom part of the Yule Tree became the Yule Log and was burned, with the people watching the flames for hours and hours. And finally, candles were a must to bring light into the cold and dark winter home as a way to celebrate the return of the sun. The traditional Yule colors were gold (for the sun), red, and green.
When in Rome, celebrate Saturnalia!
The most popular holiday in ancient Rome was certainly Saturnalia, a pagan holiday that would slowly evolve into what we call Christmas today. But the true origins of Saturnalia, a celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time, actually marked the winter solstice, which on the old Julian calendar that the Romans used, happened on December 25. By around 130 B.C., Saturnalia was a week-long festival beginning on December 17, during which time Rome basically shut down. Businesses, schools, and courts closed, and people would throw social norms to the wind in celebration. Romans would feast, light candles. socialize, wear colorful clothing, sing, play music, gamble, and give each other gifts. Slaves were allowed to not work during Saturnalia and, in some cases, would be waited on by their masters and even allowed to insult them! Granted, once Saturnalia was over, slaves would be slaves again, and masters weren’t always forgiving.
The very first Christmas
The birth of Jesus began to be celebrated as early as the 2nd century A.D., but neither the date nor the method was consistent. This all changed on December 25, 336 A.D. when the first recorded Christmas celebration happened in the Roman Empire. Interestingly, the Bible provides no date for the actual birth of Christ. Back in those days, birth records were almost nonexistent, so for convenience, Jews of that time traditionally decided that great men should be considered to have been born on the same day that they died (not the same year, of course). And so, Passover generally doubled as a birth/death day for Jesus for those early centuries after his crucifixion.
However, in 221 A.D. Sextus Julius Africanus pronounced March 25, a vernal equinox marking the beginning of spring, as the day of the messiah’s immaculate conception. Doing the simple math, nine months later was December 25, which would then be the date of Christ’s birth. This was actually a rather convenient date, as it allowed Jesus’s birthday to mark the beginning of longer days, rebirth, and also to coincide with winter solstice festivals like Saturnalia and Yule, which were already being held throughout Rome and Europe. What better way to help pagans accept Christianity than to schedule Christians’ greatest holy day to take place at the same time as the pagans’ merriest holiday?
How did Saint Nicholas and Jesus come to share a holiday?

After the canonization of Saint Nicholas, December 6 (the day of his passing) became known as Saint Nicholas Day, a celebration of gift-giving throughout the Christian world. As the years and centuries went by, Saint Nicholas Day eventually merged with the Christmas holiday in many (but not all) European countries, since the two holidays occurred so close together. And that’s how Christmas became a time for giving presents and how Saint Nicholas got connected with a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, in parts of northern Europe, especially in some German-speaking areas, as well as in cities in the United States with German immigrant populations, Saint Nicholas Day remains its own separate holiday. In a number of places, children will leave letters for Saint Nicholas and/or carrots (or grass) for his donkey (or horse). The next morning, children find small presents, oranges, chocolate coins, and other treats under their pillows or in shoes or plates that they leave out, or in stockings that are hung. They also get candy canes, which are shaped like a bishop’s crozier. Interestingly, in Greece, the gift-giver is not Saint Nicholas but rather Saint Basil of Caesarea, and presents are handed out on New Year’s Day. The reason is that, in Greece, St. Nicholas is known as the protector of sailors and the patron saint of the Greek navy, military, and merchants. So the Greeks celebrate Saint Nicholas day with festivities aboard ships and boats both in port and out at sea.

Is Saint Nicholas really the Norse god Odin?
During the middle ages, in some parts of Europe, Saint Nicholas and his holiday merged with the pagan god Odin (Woden) and his holiday, a Germanic winter celebration known as The Feast of Juul or Yule (hence the term “yule time” or “yuletide”). According to legend, Odin would lead a hunting party at Yule, riding across the sky on an 8-legged horse named Sleipnir. (Eight legs? Eight reindeer? Possibly, but probably not. We’ll learn the origin of Santa’s reindeer farther down the page.) Yule tradition had children fill their boots with carrots, straw, or sugar for Odin’s flying horse and leave them by the chimney. During Yule, in appreciation for providing food for Sleipnir, Odin would reward children with gifts and candy. Eventually, as Christianity spread throughout Europe and paganism faded, Saint Nicholas became the bearded rider of the horse who dropped gifts for children down chimneys.
What the heck is wassailing?

The Christmas carol starts: “Here we come a’ wassailing among the leaves so green…” But what the heck is a wassail? And why are the leaves green in the middle of winter? As it turns out, wassail is both a noun and a verb…and a greeting! The greeting came first, as the old Norse “Ves Heill” (which became the Anglo-Saxon “Waes Hael”) meant “Be in good health.” The proper response was “Drinc Hael” (“Drink in good health”). And this led to the noun wassail, which first appeared in written form in the old English epic poem “Beowulf” (written between 700 and 1000 A.D.) as the sweet, spiced mead or ale that was consumed…often in very liberal quantities!


What’s much more interesting, though, is how wassail became a verb. During the early middle ages throughout Europe, farmers would go out to their orchards during the winter months and pour cider and other alcohols onto the roots of their fruit trees in the hope that those trees would produce more fruit in the next harvest. This was known as wassailing and often included the singing of songs to frighten away evil spirits that might be living in the trees. As Christmas traditions spread throughout Europe later in the middle ages, wassailing began to be done on the twelfth night of Christmas, as farmers asked the baby Jesus to bless their trees. And that is how wassailing (the verb) came to be connected with Christmas and singing carols.

The origin of the Christmas tree

Although the Scandinavians brought trees into their homes for Juul, Christmas trees didn’t become a tradition in the rest of Europe until the 16th century. However, we have to go back 800 years earlier for the first-ever Christmas tree. One Christmas eve in the 8th century, Saint Boniface, a Catholic missionary to the Germans from Britain, chopped down a large oak tree that the Germans used for pagan worship. He told them the fir tree represented peace and eternal life and to gather around evergreen trees in the spirit of kindness and love, saying that the triangular shape of the evergreen represented the Holy Trinity. Devout Germans quickly embraced this idea, initially decorating their “paradise trees” with apples, nuts, berries, and white candles.

In the 15th century, more elaborate ornaments began to be incorporated onto the trees. In Latvia around 1600, roses were used to represent the Virgin Mary. In 1605 in Strasbourg, a tree was brought indoors for the first time in Germany and decorated with paper roses, wafers, candies, and candles. In 1610, tinsel made of pure silver was introduced. The tradition of taking trees inside the home and decorating them then began to quickly spread throughout Europe. Christmas trees took longer to catch on in America, however, as strict Puritanical groups initially saw the trees as pagan customs. Still, German settlers were more than happy to enjoy Christmas trees in the 1700s and 1800s until the rest of America caught on to all the fun!

Where does the name Kris Kringle come from?
During the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, many Catholic saints were shunned by Protestant countries, including poor old Saint Nicholas. (Bucking the trend of their nearby neighbors, the Dutch, who became mostly Calvinist, kept up the celebration of Saint Nicholas, whom they called in their language Sint Nikolaas, or Sinterklaas for short.) Christmas continued throughout all of Europe, however, and so did gift-giving. But in most of the non-Catholic European countries, the gift-giver at Christmas gradually evolved from Saint Nicholas to the little Christ Child (an angelic Baby Jesus). In German, the word for “little Christ Child” is “Christkindl.” The name Kris Kringle comes from that German word.
Massachusetts once made Christmas festivities illegal!
In the 17th century, Protestants and Puritans resisted the revelry of Christmas. They wanted a quiet, contemplative holiday, and they brought that restrained tradition with them to America. And in 1659, the Massachusetts colony actually banned Christmas festivities! (In fairness to the Puritans, annual Christmas revelries had gotten to a point of being rather excessive, often out of control, and sometimes even destructive.)  But there was still one settlement  in America celebrating Christmas with merriment: New Amsterdam (which later became New York City). The Dutch hadn’t yet given up on Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, as they called him in their language) and the joy of the Christmas holiday!
The Dutch believe that St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) actually lives in Spain and travels by boat!
You wouldn’t recognize the Dutch Sinterklaas as Santa Claus! Sinterklaas is a thin, elderly, serious man who wears bishop’s clothes and carries a staff. He rides a horse that jumps from rooftop to rooftop. And instead of elves, he has an assistant known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Oh, and Sinterklaas doesn’t live at the North Pole. He and Zwarte Piet live in Spain and arrive by boat on the weekend after the 11th of November, the feast of St. Martin. On the night of the arrival, all children put their shoe at the fire place with a carrot for Sinterklaas’ horse which will be exchanged by Black Pete for a gift. The children then have to wait until the evening of December 5th (December 6 in Belgium) for a visit from St. Nicholas and his helpers to bring more gifts.
The name “Santa Claus” was originally a typo!
Would you believe that the name “Santa Claus” was originally just a typo??? It’s true! The reporters for The New York Gazette in 1773 were writing an article about the traditions of the Dutch who still lived in New York City, formerly the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. Having no idea how to spell the Dutch name “Sint Nikolaas” (or “Sinterklaas” as most of the Dutch pronounced it), and not bothering to ask any Dutch people for the proper spelling, the newspaper folks took their best shot and called him “St. A. Claus.” No kidding! A few months later, another newspaper (Rivington’s Gazetteer) referred to the Dutch gift-giver as “Santa Claus,” and that’s been his name in English ever since!
The book that first made Santa Claus big and jolly!
Washington Irving’s wildly popular 1809 book “A History of New York” was the first-ever mention of Santa sliding down a chimney (rather than just dropping presents down the chimney). This was also the first time Santa was ever described as rotund, jolly, and smoking a pipe. Remember that the Dutch Sinterklaas was thin and serious and carried a staff. But Washington Irving’s description caught on, and suddenly Santa Claus had a brand new image!
The professor whose poem launched Santa Claus into the big time!
Santa’s next big break came in 1823 when a professor of Oriental & Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning, named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a 56-line Christmas poem entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” for his three daughters. Do you recognize the title of this famous poem? Well, you might know it by its later title, taken from the first five lines of the poem: “Twas the Night Before Christmas…”
The poem also established for the first time that Santa has eight reindeer!
“Twas the Night Before Christmas” did more to define the character of Santa Claus than anything that had come before it. Along with a colorful physical description of the “right jolly old elf,” Clement Clarke Moore’s poem was also the first time anyone had ever mentioned Santa using reindeer and a sleigh, rather than just riding a horse. Not only that, but Moore established that Santa Claus in fact had EIGHT reindeer, and he gave them all names that we still use today!
These were the original names of Donner and Blitzen…
In “The Night Before Christmas” poem, two of Santa’s reindeer were originally named Dunder and Blixem (Dutch words for “thunder and lightning”), a nod to Santa’s origins from the Dutch Sinterklaas. But in a later 1844 printing of the poem, author Clement Clarke Moore changed the names of the two reindeer to Donder and Blitzen. The German words for thunder and lightning, however, are Donner and Blitzen, so why “Donder” and not “Donner”? No one is certain. It’s possible that Moore wanted something closer to Dunder and chose Donder. It’s also possible that Moore simply didn’t know German as well as he knew ancient Greek and Hebrew (which he taught). And of course, it might have simply been a typo accidentally made at the printers! Whatever the reason, by the time that the poem “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was first published nearly a century later in 1939, the reindeer’s name was listed as Donner, which has since been accepted by children the world over as the official name of Santa’s proud reindeer.
The friendship of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens
Two of the most beloved Christmas authors of the early 19th century were actually close friends. You may recall that Washington Irving’s 1809 “A History of New York” was one of the earliest books to popularize Santa Claus. Arguably the earliest book to popularize Christmas celebrations in general was “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. As it turns out, these two authors (one American and the other British) shared a close friendship that began in 1840 after the publication of Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop.” Irving wrote to Dickens complimenting him on the novel, and Dickens replied enthusiastically. The two continued to correspond until Dickens arrived in America in January 1842, and the two men met frequently for the next three months until Irving was appointed as U.S. Minister to Spain. Dickens was inspired by the Christmas stories of both Irving and Douglas Gerrold, as well as by cherished holiday memories from his own youth. His classic tale, “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” (more commonly known simply as “A Christmas Carol”) was first published on December 19, 1943 and had sold out before that Christmas eve. By the end of 1844, over a dozen editions of the beloved book had been released!
The very first Christmas card
The man credited with sending out the very first Christmas card was Sir Henry Cole in 1843, the same year as Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was first published. Among Cole’s many, many achievements were advancing the design and construction of the Royal Albert Hall, the Albert Memorial, Imperial College, and the great museums of South Kensington, including the Science Museum, Natural History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum…all in and around London. Not surprisingly, a civil servant involved with so many projects had quite a large number of people (many hundreds!) to send Christmas well-wishes to. But rather than writing a separate letter to each, Cole commissioned an artist, John Calcott Horsley, to create an image of Cole’s family enjoying a Christmas toast with wine. Even one of the young children of the family was having a good-sized sip! On the sides were drawings of the poor and impoverished as a reminder that this season was one for giving and charity. It said “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

Cole had 1,000 of these printed and engraved at a size of what is now a typical post card, hand-colored (or coloured), and then sent half of them to his friends. The rest he sold for a shilling at the shop in London’s Old Bond Street. The steep price (a full day’s wages for many at the time!) and the fact that the cards showed someone else’s family resulted in lackluster sales of the remainder of the stock. It wouldn’t be until the advent of more affordable color printing a couple of decades later and the penny post allowing for cheap delivery of mail that Christmas cards began to catch on with those who weren’t among the wealthy elite.
The first mention of Mrs. Claus was in 1849
The wife of Santa Claus is first mentioned in the short story “A Christmas Legend” by James Rees in 1849. In the story, a family offers shelter for the night to an old man and woman, both carrying a large bundle on their backs. The night is Christmas Eve, and in the morning, the children of the house find piles of toys left for them. The family suspects that the elderly couple is really “old Santa Claus and his wife,” hence the first reference to Mrs. Claus. It turns out, however, that the visitors are really the host’s long-lost elder daughter and her husband in disguise.
Santa Claus wraps himself in the American flag!
When did Santa Claus start looking like Santa Claus? Various drawings of Santa in the mid-1800s showed him wearing anything from a blue 3-cornered hat or a broad-brimmed hat to a red waistcoat and even yellow stockings! The first Santa Claus cartoon in “Harper’s Weekly” in 1863 actually showed Santa dressed like Uncle Sam in American flag stars and stripes as he addressed Union troops fighting in the Civil War. But it wouldn’t be long before that same cartoonist, Thomas Nast, would establish Santa’s distinct look for children across America to recognize.
Thomas Nast establishes the “accepted” look of Santa Claus…including the red suit and North Pole headquarters
Although many artists throughout the middle of the 19th century each had their own take on Santa Claus (tall, short, gaunt, rotund, etc.), Santa’s “look” was defined for most of America through a series of cartoons by Thomas Nast spanning decades in “Harper’s Weekly” magazine. In 1869, Santa showed up for the first time in a red suit, which would soon become the generally-accepted color for Santa to wear. Nast was also the first professional artist to draw Mrs. Claus. But perhaps most interesting, Thomas Nast is credited with coming up with the location of Santa’s workshop being near the North Pole! Before that, Americans had no idea where Santa lived! But within a few years of the printing of this image of Santa looking through his telescope from his frosty castle toward the rest of the world, most American children would confidently tell you that Santa Claus lived at or near the North Pole.
The father of the American Christmas card
Although the first mass-produced Christmas card was created in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, color printing was far too expensive to make such “luxuries” accessible to the common family. In fact, prior to 1874, the concept of a Christmas card was all but unheard of by the vast majority of the population. Despite the widespread celebration of Christmas by this point, cards weren’t typically a part of it…until Louis Prang came along. Starting in England in 1873 and the following year in America, Prang began to produce high-quality cards specifically for Christmas using the new chromo-lithographic process that made color printing significantly cheaper. Known as the “father of the American Christmas card,” by 1881 Prang was reportedly printing five million Christmas cards a year!
Santa’s first appearance on a Christmas card
Louis Prang’s earliest Christmas cards were simple flower designs with the words “Merry Christmas.” But in 1885, he produced his first Christmas card featuring a red-suited Santa, and Mr. Claus would remain a frequent Christmas card subject until Prang gave up the card business in the mid 1890s.
The invention of electric Christmas tree lights
For centuries, Christmas trees were adorned with, among other decorations, candles. However, candles and drying timber aren’t necessarily the safest combination (especially indoors)! And so the amount of time that Christmas trees were actually lit by candles was typically very brief, and the candles were NEVER left unattended.
But in 1882, when Thomas Edison’s Electric Illuminating Company of New York first brought electric lights to some areas of Manhattan, Edison’s friend and partner, Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of the company, put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together. A cord of 80 red, white, and blue lights adorned a tree that was placed on a revolving platform in the front window of his East 36th Street New York City townhouse. The revolving motion allowed different lights to connect and disconnect from circuits, resulting in the lights turning on and off as the tree rotated. People crowded on the street outside to see this amazing spectacle. Johnson made his electrically-lighted tree an annual event, increasing the number of lights to 120 two Christmases later. But electricity was a rarity back then, with the vast majority of homes still being lit by candles and oil lamps for a few more decades.
The White House gets a Christmas tree
The very first president to enjoy a Christmas tree within the White House itself was Benjamin Harrison in 1889. And although Thomas Edison and Edward Johnson had invented electric Christmas tree lights seven years earlier, Harrison’s tree was still lit only by candles. It wasn’t until six years later in 1895 that President Grover Cleveland enjoyed a White House Christmas tree decorated with Edison electric bulbs. The first annual National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the ellipse at the southern end of the White House grounds took place on December 24, 1923, with President Calvin Coolidge pressing the button to light the tree. The tree itself was a giant fir from his native Vermont. Thousands of adults and children stood on the ellipse for hours cheering and singing, horns honked from passing motorcars, and a searchlight shone on the tree from the top of the neighboring Washington Monument.
Establishing that Santa Claus is married…
Katherine Lee Bates’ 1889 poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” popularized Mrs. Claus (“Goody” is short for “Goodwife”). After its publication, it became widely accepted that Santa Claus was, indeed, married. Here are the first four stanzas of the twenty-six stanza poem…

Santa, must I tease in vain, Deer? Let me go and hold the reindeer,
While you clamber down the chimneys. Don’t look savage as a Turk!
Why should you have all the glory of the joyous Christmas story,
And poor little Goody Santa Claus have nothing but the work?


It would be so very cozy, you and I, all round and rosy,
Looking like two loving snowballs in our fuzzy Arctic furs,
Tucked in warm and snug together, whisking through the winter weather
Where the tinkle of the sleigh-bells is the only sound that stirs.


You just sit here and grow chubby off the goodies in my cubby
From December to December, till your white beard sweeps your knees;
For you must allow, my Goodman, that you’re but a lazy woodman
And rely on me to foster all our fruitful Christmas trees.


While your Saintship waxes holy, year by year, and roly-poly,
Blessed by all the lads and lassies in the limits of the land,
While your toes at home you’re toasting, then poor Goody must go posting
Out to plant and prune and garner, where our fir-tree forests stand.

The first-ever department store Santa Claus
The first department store Santa appeared in 1890 at The Boston Store in Brockton, MA, played by storeowner James Edgar. He would dress up as Santa and walk around the store, handing out small gifts to young children. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army began dressing up unemployed New York men in Santa Claus suits to solicit donations. And in 1891 in Liverpool, England, Lewis’ department store chain also began to feature Father Christmas (a character very similar to Santa Claus by that point). But instead of walking around the store, their version allowed children to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas. It was actually a brilliant idea, as parents listening in were already there at the store and could now purchase the exact toys their children wanted! Over the next few years, other department stores all over the world were featuring their own Santa, joyously encouraging children to sit on his lap and share their Christmas wish list. And so, within less than a decade, the department store Santa went from a unique and novel idea to a familiar Christmas staple!
Santa Claus photos become a thing
So many people have cherished pictures of themselves or their children and families with jolly ol’ Saint Nicholas. But when did Santa Claus photos first become popular? Although photography itself was initially invented in 1822, it wasn’t until the 1880s when George Eastman’s Kodak company invented flexible film that photography became something that could be more commonly accessed and enjoyed by a much wider range of people. The first film camera, known as the Kodak, was capable of taking up to 100 photos before the film needed to be changed. In 1897, Benjamin W. Kilburn, a prolific and popular photographer of the era, produced a series of black and white stereoscopic photographs showing Santa Claus in his now-accepted red and white outfit in a variety of situations, including talking on the phone and surrounded by children in front of a Christmas tree.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
In 1897, the following letter was received by the “New York Sun” from Virginia O’Hanlon, 115 West 95th Street, New York City: “Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?” Editorial writer Francis Pharcellus Church responded to the letter in a festive and optimistic column that became one of the most famous op-eds in history. You might recognize the most memorable sentence of his response: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
“The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus”
So passionate was the desire of children at the turn of the 20th century to know everything about Santa that famous author L. Frank Baum (of “Wizard of Oz” fame) wrote “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” in 1902. The book was later adapted, and simplified quite heavily, into a 1985 Christmas television special produced in stop-motion animation by Rankin/Bass.
The first factory-produced Christmas lights weren’t cheap!
It was 1903 when the General Electric Company produced and sold the first factory-produced Christmas tree lights. The cost was approximately $1 per bulb, which is equal to about $35 today! A single packet of 12 bulbs would cost nearly a week’s wages for the average American family at the time! And add to that the cost of an electrician who was required to set up the lights at the time for safety reasons. The cost to light an entire Christmas tree back then with 80-100 lights would end up costing the equivalent of $5,000 in today’s money!!! As such, it’s not surprising that only the wealthiest families enjoyed electric Christmas tree lights back in the first decade of the twentieth century. However, by the 1930s, with most homes now wired for electricity and manufacturing costs significantly less, electric Christmas lights had become a standard part of holiday decorating for most Americans.
The U.S. Post Office lets YOU be Santa Claus!
Want to make a child’s Christmas dream come true? The US Postal Service first started the “Letters to Santa” program (now known as “Operation Santa”) just over 100 years ago in 1912, and it’s still on today! Here’s how it works. The USPS receives hundreds of thousands of letters addressed simply to Santa Claus at the North Pole. Postal “elves” go through the letters and separate those that express serious need. A person wishing to adopt a letter can go to a Post Office, present valid photo identification, select one or more letters to take with them, and fill out a form that includes the list of letters they are adopting. The child’s address(es) on the envelope will have been blocked out and the letter assigned a number. After the individual fulfills the child’s wishes with a gift, he or she returns with the letter and unwrapped gift to the same Post Office and pays the postage for the package. A postal employee will match the number on the letter with the child’s address, apply a label to it, and put the package in the mailstream. Go to your local Post Office and ask them about it; it’ll make you feel amazing!
The first soft drink company to use a red and white suited Santa was NOT Coca Cola!
You might be surprised to learn that Coca Cola wasn’t the first soft drink company to use a red and white suited Santa. That distinction belongs to White Rock Beverages, which featured Santa Claus in his familiar red and white garments in 1915 to sell mineral water. Coke wouldn’t include Santa in their ads until 1931.
Coca Cola started putting Santa Claus into its ads in 1931…and continued to do so for 35 years!
Beginning in 1931, Coca Cola ran a world-famous 35-year advertising campaign where artist Haddon Sundblom would paint portraits of Santa Claus holding or drinking Coca Cola. These holiday season ads helped to popularize Santa Claus even more and cement his image in the minds of people around the world as a stout, jolly, red-suited man.
The history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
Back in 1931, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, workers at the Rockefeller Center construction site were grateful just to have jobs! And so they pooled their own money together to purchase a 20-foot balsam fir using garlands made by their families and the tinfoil ends of blasting caps. Two years later, Nelson Rockefeller put up a 50-foot tree, decorating it with 700 twinkling lights and organizing the first official tree-lighting ceremony. In 1936, with two trees placed above the newly-opened Rockefeller Plaza Outdoor Ice Skating Pond, the lightning ceremony for the first time included a skating pageant. NBC first televised the tree lighting in 1951 during The Kate Smith Show, with Smith (known as “the first lady of radio”) hosting. Since then, the tree lighting typically features famous celebrities and musicians. In 2007, for the first time ever, energy-efficient LEDs were used, reducing energy consumption by nearly two-thirds (saving as much energy as a single family would use in a month in a 2,000-square-foot home). Today, the tree is wrapped with more than 50,000 multi-colored LED lights on approximately five miles of wire. Beginning in 2007, lumber milled from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is typically used to help a family build a Habitat for Humanity home.
The origin of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Nearly a hundred years after Clement Moore established Santa Claus as having eight reindeer, a ninth made an appearance in 1939 when Montgomery Ward department stores decided to produce their own holiday give-away for children. A low-paid in-house advertising copywriter named Robert L. May was given the assignment to write a “cheery” Christmas book for shoppers, maybe with a cute animal as the star. The story that Mr. May created was titled “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Rudolf was almost named Reginald???
Author Robert L. May actually considered naming the red-nosed reindeer “Rollo” or “Reginald” before deciding upon using the name “Rudolph”. The book proved to be a stunning success, as Montgomery Ward distributed over 2.5 million copies of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1939. Wartime restrictions on paper use kept “Rudolph” from seeing print again until 1946, but in that year, another 3.6 million copies were distributed to Montgomery Ward shoppers.
Rudolf leaps off the page!
In 1948, Robert May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the story of Rudolph into a song, and when singing cowboy Gene Autry released “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” just before Christmas of 1949, the record jumped to number one, selling 1.75 million copies. Since then, three dozen other singing stars have recorded their versions (including Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Paul Anka, the Temptations, the Jackson 5, Dolly Parton, Babyface, Jewel, Ringo Starr, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Chicago, Barry Manilow, and Destiny’s Child). The story of Rudolph has been translated into 25 languages and was made into a beloved television movie, narrated by Burl Ives, in 1964.
A wrong number in 1955 led to NORAD tracking Santa Claus by radar each year…
Each year, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracks Santa’s progress on Christmas Eve and reports it to the public. But the whole thing started quite by accident! Back in 1955, a Sears department store placed an ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper inviting children to call Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and Sears provided a phone number. Unfortunately, there was a typo, and the number printed in the ad actually went to the Colorado Springs Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center! But rather than considering this an annoyance and telling kids that they dialed the wrong number, Colonel Harry Shoup, who was on duty that night, told his staff to play along and provide the “current location” of Santa Claus for any child that called. The tradition continued even when CONAD was replaced by NORAD in 1958. And today, using corporate sponsorship only (no government funding) and volunteers, NORAD handles more than 12,000 e-mails and more than 70,000 telephone calls from more than two hundred countries and territories during the twenty-five hours from 2am on Dec. 24 until 3am (Mountain Time) on Dec. 25.
Santa Claus has his own zip code…in Canada!
So where exactly does Santa live? Most American kids will say the North Pole, and there is an actual American town called North Pole, Alaska, where many American letters to Santa are addressed. But Canada also claims the North Pole, and has an address for Santa with a Canadian zip code of H0H0H0. On December 23, 2008, Jason Kenney, one of Canada’s ministers, formally awarded Canadian citizenship status to Santa Claus.

What’s the difference between Santa Claus and Father Christmas?

So who is Father Christmas, and what does he have to do with Santa Claus? Originally, back in the 1600s, Father Christmas was just a symbol of Christmas celebration and cheer, having nothing to do with children or gift giving. Instead, he was a reaction to the English Puritans trying to impose a mood of seriousness upon the Christmas holiday. “Old Christmas” or “Father Christmas” was a kind, elderly gentleman with white hair, beard, and festive, flowing robes (usually green). Father Christmas sought to bring joyful merriment back to the holiday that the Puritans tried to make somber. The boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was based on the original Father Christmas. Eventually Father Christmas evolved to become synonymous with Santa Claus, switching to a red suit and bringing presents to good little children.
For Christmas in Scandinavia, children leave a bowl of porridge for Julennisse / Jultomte
In Norway, the Julennisse (in Sweden, he is called Jultomte) gives children gifts in person. Typically, the nisser and tomtar are short gnomes who help farmers care for animals. But the special Julennisse/Jultomte is the size of a full-grown man, which makes it easier for Norwegian and Swedish fathers and uncles to dress up in his garb and hand out toys at Christmas. Scandinavian tradition requires children to leave a bowl of julegrøt (porridge) with butter out in the barn or in the house for Julennisse/Jultomte on Christmas Eve. And don’t forget that butter! One old legend tells of a nisse/tomte who found a bowl of porridge left for him with no butter. In anger, he killed one of the prized cows in the barn and then ate the porridge anyway. At the bottom of the bowl, he discovered that the children had put butter in after all, and he felt ashamed. To atone for his misdeed, the nisse/tomte walked to the neighbor’s farm, took their best cow, and led her back to the stall of the cow he had killed.
Don’t be naughty in Iceland or else the thirteen Yule Lads might leave you a rotting potato!
In Iceland, there isn’t just one Christmas gift-giver but thirteen of them! And it isn’t Santa Claus, per se, but a group of troll-like Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir), each a mischievous practical joker. For each of the thirteen nights before Christmas Eve, one Yule Lad will visit, leaving gifts for good children while the bad children get rotting potatoes! Although the Yule Lads have traditionally been pictured wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing, in more modern times, they’ve each begun wearing red suits like Santa Claus wears.
Beware the KRAMPUS!!!
In many Alpine countries and throughout central Europe, there exists a Christmas character that might seem strange to many of the rest of us. Traveling alongside Saint Nicholas at Christmastime is the demonic Krampus, and he really is a monster. While Saint Nicholas rewards good children with presents, the Krampus supposedly captures the worst behaved children and carries them in a sack to his lair for punishment. It sounds pretty terrifying! But in nearly a dozen countries, on December 5 (the day before Saint Nicholas day), young men dress up as the Krampus and roam the streets with rusty chains and bells. The idea is that the Krampus will scare children into behaving extra well so that Saint Nicholas will bring them presents on Christmas. Although somewhat controversial, Krampus celebrations continue, but some countries like Austria are trying to change the image of the Krampus from fearsome to humorous. Good luck with that!
Santa Claus versus Belsnickel!
If you think the Krampus is scary, Santa Claus was nearly Belsnickel! The German “Nicholas in fur” (the English translation of the name) was the holiday gift-giver for centuries, and his legend traveled to America when German colonists settled in Pennsylvania. And in the 1800s, as the legend of Santa Claus was growing in New York, across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, so was the legend of Belsnickel. Be glad that Santa Claus won the popularity contest, as Belsnickel isn’t nearly as nice a guy! Unlike the Krampus, who travels with St. Nicholas, Belsnickel IS St. Nicholas and arrives alone. He’s as grumpy as the Grinch, and wears tattered and dirty clothing. In his pockets are candies and cakes and nuts for the good children, but in his hand is a wooden switch to beat bad children…yikes! Belsnickel would visit homes a couple of weeks before Christmas to check up on children, seeming to know already who was bad. He would arrive grumpy, but if children sang him songs, Belsnickel would cheer up a little and drop treats on the floor. But watch out! Any child jumping for the goodies too quickly might get a wallop with the switch. It might sound harsh, but many German and Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsche) children found the visits of Belsnickel to be benign and even fun. These days, Belsnickel is seen only very rarely, as Santa Claus came out on top.
In Slavic nations, the gift giver is Ded Moroz
In Russia and in many of the current Slavic countries that used to be a part of the Soviet Union, gifts are given to children on New Years by Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost” in English). He is a sorcerer who carries a large staff and wears a red and white fur coat (similar to Santa and St. Nicholas). However, unlike Santa, Ded Moroz doesn’t come secretly in the middle of the night but rather appears during New Years parties at schools and performances where standardized gifts are given out to every child in attendance. In cases where a child can’t get to a live appearance, Ded Moroz will leave presents under a New Year tree. Another difference from Santa and St. Nick is that Ded Moroz travels around with his granddaughter and helper, Snegurochka (“Snow Maiden”). Together, the two fight off the evil witch, Baba Yaga, who wants to steal their gifts away from the children.
In Italy, La Befana will leave you gifts and candy, AND she’ll sweep up your house, too!
In Italy, children get a visit the night of January 5 (Epiphany Eve) from La Befana, an old woman who rides a broom from house to house. She leaves candy for good children and coal for bad children. (In some parts of Italy, Befana leaves dark-colored rock candy for naughty children, just so they still have something sweet.) There are many legends of La Befana and why she visits children, but most deal with the birth of Jesus and the Three Wise Men coming to La Befana’s home to ask for directions to Bethlehem. She does not know, and when they offer to take her with them, La Befana is too busy with her cleaning to go. Later, she regrets not joining them and sets off to find the baby Jesus herself. In some legends she is successful, in others she in not. But to this day, La Befana still visits children and leaves them gifts, just as she tried to do for the baby Jesus. And how do children know it was La Befana who came to their home in the middle of the night and left candy…and not their parents? Simple! La Befana is an excellent house cleaner, and whenever she visits a home on Epiphany Eve, she sweeps the floor!
The traditional Christmas meal in Japan is…Kentucky Fried Chicken???
It’s true! For more than five decades, millions of Japanese families have celebrated Christmas with a dinner of fried chicken from KFC…so many, in fact, that orders have to be placed weeks in advance or risk having to stand in line for hours! It all began back in 1970 when Takeshi Okawara, the manager of the first KFC in the country, overheard some American customers now living in Japan talking about how they missed having turkey for Christmas dinner. Okawara thought he could market a “party barrel” at Christmas with chicken a close substitute for turkey. The idea caught on, and a nun at a nearby school asked Okawara if KFC would supply chicken for its Christmas party. Okawara agreed, even putting on a Santa suit and dancing around the classroom with a bucket of fried chicken! By 1974, KFC took the marketing campaign national, calling it “Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii,” or “Kentucky for Christmas,” and it quickly became a tradition in the Land of the Rising Sun. Meanwhile, Okawara, who had started out so destitute that he used to sleep on bags of flour in the back of his KFC store, climbed through the company ranks and eventually served as president and CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan from 1984 to 2002.