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The History of Santa Claus

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As a Santa collector, my curiosity grew with my collection. When I was a child he was mystical and mysterious but I could not wait to drive to Huntington, WV  every year in early December to see him. In those days that was quite a trip from our farm in the country.

What is his origin? I suppose we should start  with the original St. Nicholas. He was born during the third century in the village of Patara, then a Greek area, now known as Turkey. His wealthy parents died when he was still young. His parents had been strong Christians and he wanted to obey Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor”.  He used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his Cathedral Church. Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of his life and deeds. These accounts help us to understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved.

The first Europeans to arrive in the new world brought the story of St. Nicholas with them. On his first voyage,Columbus named a Haitian port for St. Nicholas on December 6, 1492. In Florida, Spaniards named an early settlement St. Nicholas Ferry, now known as Jacksonville.

In the 1600’s the Puritans made it illegal, however, to mention St. Nicholas’ name. People were not allowed to exchange gifts, light a candle, or sing Christmas carols. This was due to the colonists being largely Protestant.

In the 17th century Dutch immigrants brought with them the legend of Sinter Klaas. This was the inspiration for the American version of Santa Claus.

1773: Santa first appeared in the media as St. A Claus.

1804: The New York Historical Society was founded, with St. Nicolas as its patron saint. Its members engaged in the Dutch practice of gift giving at Christmas.

1821: William Gilley printed a poem about  Santa Claus who was dressed in fur and drove a sleigh drawn by a single reindeer.

1822 : Dentist Clement Clarke Moore is believed by many to have written a poem which became known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

1841: J.W. Parkinson, a Philadelphia merchant, hired a man to dress up in a “Criscringle” outfit and climb the chimney of his store.

1863: Illustrator Thomas Nast created images of Santa for the Christmas editions of Harper’s Magazine. These continued through the 1890’s.

1860’s: President Abraham Lincoln asked Nast to create a drawing of Santa with some Union Soldiers. This image of Santa supporting the enemy had a demoralizing influence on the Confederate army – an early example of psychological warfare.

1897: Francis P. Church, Editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial in response to a letter from an eight year old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon. It has become known as the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter.

1920’s: The image of Santa had been standardized to protray a bearded, over-weight, jolly man dressed in a red suit with white trim.

1931: Haddon Dundblom, illustrator for The Coca Cola company drew a series of Santa images in their Christmas advertisements until 1964.

1939 : Copywriter Robert L. May of the Montgomery Ward Company created a poem about Rudolph the ninth reindeer.

1949: Johnny Marks wrote the song “ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

Through history St. Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, St. A Claus, or Santa Claus has remained a large part of our celebration of Christmas for the young as well as young at heart.

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