It took almost two thousand years for the image of Santa to become the way it is known today. But if we were to go back to the turn of the fourth century, we would meet a person, much different from the jolly old man that we are used to. Saint Nicholas lived in the small Greek town of Myra in present day Turkey and was the town’s bishop. Those were the times of the Roman Empire and Christians were still being pursued and discriminated. In 303 the Emperor Diocletian issued a series of verdicts, restricting Christian rights in what was later known as The Great Prosecution. It was a time when scriptures were burned and priests executed, unless they renounce their religion. Saint Nicholas, who was an outspoken defender of his faith, was thrown into prison and remained there until 313 when the new Emperor, Constantine, lifted the restrictions.
Throughout the years his legend became more and more prominent and he was associated with many miracles, but most of the stories revolved around one central theme – he became the patron and protector of children. In one story he secretly gave three bags of gold to the indebted father of three young girls, saving them from a life as prostitutes. Eventually bringing children gifts became a central part of his image, but only if they were devoted in their prayers and had good behavior. Around the 1200s this became a tradition around his holyday, December 6.
However, during the Protestant reformation all feasts and saint’s days were abolished, and Saint Nicholas fell out of favor. It was Martin Luther himself, who wanted to transfer the attention to Jesus and so the Christkind was made the gift-giver and the tradition moved to Christmas. Still, the image of an infant child carrying loads of gifts wasn’t very presentable and so a helper got introduced. Instead of the kind old man, he was depicted as scary and threatening. Around Europe many different versions emerged, like Belsnickle and Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, Hans Trapp and Père Fouettard in France and Zwarte Piet in The Netherlands. And the most famous, the Austrian Krampus. All of these figures expected the kids to behave, or they would be punished or kidnapped.
But many families simply refused to give up on Saint Nicholas and eventually Sinterklaas, as he is known in the Netherlands, got brought to America. There he got stripped of his religious characteristics, put on his famous attire and got on his sleigh with reindeers. Eventually this image made its way back to Europe, where it replaced the scary Christmas helpers and took up his role as the bringer of presents.
It’s a common misconception that Santa’s clothing was invented by Coca-Cola. He wore similar clothes long before Coke was even invented and although he used to be depicted in many different colors, red has always been predominant. It was Thomas Nast who in 1863 created the modern image of Santa, with his huge belly and black belt around it, for the magazine Harper’s Weekly. It wasn’t until the 1931 that Haddon Sundblom created the first advertisement for Coke, which did cement the image in popular culture.