A Little History of Santa Claus

by Judy Melkonian


The Historical Society’s little elf, Judy Melkonian, did some ‘Santa’ research for us and  came up with some interesting facts about that Jolly Old Elf.  On behalf of the Board of Trustees of Warren County Historical Society we wish each and every one of you the happiest holiday season and the best to all in 2019.



St. Nicholas & Sinterklaas

     The holiday traditions of Santa, was a real man, St Nicholas of Myra (now Turkey), a fourth-century bishop. His legendary generosity and miracles spread across Europe and his image evolved through the ages from a bishop into a figure whose attire blended with a variety of customs. Each culture molding a unique characteristic, which endeared him wherever he traveled. Children in the Low Countries of northern Europe, envisioned him as a gift-bearer traversing through the snow wearing traditional wooden clogs of Holland. When the Dutch came to the New World, in the early 1600’s they introduced their Sinterklaas, to the ears of the colonist, he became “Santa Claus.”



Ru Klaus, Rauklas

     Christianity encompassed Europe before the Middle Ages. However, many people continued to incorporate ancient pagan traditions into their Catholic doctrine.  One legend of the Germanic region told of a shaggy, dark, gruff man who appeared at the Winter Solstice. He brought the warmth of spring, and his gifts of fruit and nuts held the promise of a plentiful harvest to come. When the observance of Christ’s mass (Christmas) replaced the mid-winter festival the gruff, shaggy figure began to resemble St. Nicholas and came to be known as Ru Klaus or Rauklas (Rough Nicholas).



Pelznickel, Der Belsnickel or Nicholas in Furs

     Old World Germany had another odd fellow known as Belznickel or Der Belsnickel or Nicholas in Furs. This fellow was a mischievous character who enjoyed frightening children by rattling branches at windowpanes as he approached, once at the door he mellowed and offered sweets. Later Belsnickeling became a custom of going door-to-door collecting food and money for the poor.  This custom was brought to the new world by the Pennsylvanian Deutsch and continued into the 1800’s.



Pere Noel, Father Christmas or Papa Noel (Daddy Christmas)

     Pere Noel is the French messenger of Noel, the festival of good news and gifts. He was simply dressed and always carried mistletoe or evergreen. On Christmas Eve, the children left their shoes by the hearth filled with carrots and treats for Pere Noel’s donkey. Pere Noel takes the offerings and, if the children have been good, he leaves small gifts in the children’s shoes. In the 1700’s his legend merged into the Louisiana Territory with the Cajun settlers, who gave Noel a twinkling wit and an eye for the ladies, and he arrived at homes in a pirogue (a boat like a canoe) towed by eight alligators.




     The Protestant reformers in Germany halted the veneration of Catholic saints, including Saint Nicholas. He was replaced in the southern regions by Christkindl or Christ Child. The Christ Child was depicted as a cherub and Ru Klaus traveled with the babe on a mule or ram.  Children set out baskets of hay for the animals, and in the morning the children found snits (dried apple slices) and choosets (candy) in their baskets. By the 1800’s Christkindl became Kriss Kringle, a similar figure to our Santa Claus.




     The Weihnachmann, a version of Saint Nicholas appeared in Germany in the 1800’s. He traveled about on Christmas Eve with a sack or basket of gifts, he also carried sticks meant for bad children.



 Dedt Moroz or Father Ice

     Russia’s Saint Nicholas was revered in the Orthodox Church but had his own feast day on December 6. Dedt Moroz (Father Ice), a frost covered character of an ancient folk tale, was associated with Christmas who rewarded kindness and harshly punished the unkind. With the rise of communism, Christianity and its traditions were outlawed, so a new folk hero, Grandfather Frost, a combination of Saint Nicholas and Father Ice emerged; today he only gives gifts on New Year’s Day.





     From Finland comes a pagan legend of Joulupukki, “Yule Goat”. This fellow collected gifts to ward off evil spirits, as time passed his visits became more like Santa Claus. With Finland, being close to the North Pole, it is hinted that Santa’s reindeer may have had their beginning there.





Father Christmas

     Father Christmas did not descend from Saint Nicholas, but from early Roman and Druid influences. Rather than bringing gifts to children he would bring mistletoe and wassail, the mulled ale of the season. However, by the late 1700’s he became the friendly gift-giver and crossed over the Atlantic with immigrants to America.  It was here he transformed into the jolly, gift-giving elf, in his traditional red cloak adorned with fur known as Santa Claus.






Compiled by Judy Melkonian

References:  Wickipedia; Oldworldsantas.com; Leisure Arts, Inc 1999



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