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St. Nicholas: The Origin Story of Father Christmas

At one point in your youth, you believed in the big man- Father Christmas or Santa Claus… or maybe you still do 😉 So where did the story of the jolly man with flying reindeer we seen our Christmas greetings cards originate from? Well, his legend was based on an actual figure: St. Nicholas.

If you’d like to learn more about how a saint became the basis of a pop culture Christmas icon whom we see on designs of masks, t-shirts, and Christmas greeting cards, stick with us for the rest of the article.

Who Is St. Nicholas?

Nicholas became a saint after his death because of two acts of kindness he performed during his life. 

In the better-known story, Bishop Nicholas saves three young girls from living a life of prostitution when he secretly hands over a bag of gold to their father, who is drowning in debt. This tale is what made Nicholas famous as the gift-giving saint.

The other tale is not well-known today but was popular in the Middle Ages. The account starts with Nicholas entering an inn whose owner had killed three little boys. The murderous innkeeper pickled their dismembered bodies in barrels.

Bishop Nicholas not only sensed the crime but resurrected the victims as well. This was the tale that made him the patron saint of children.

How Did St. Nicholas Become Father Christmas?

In 16th century Europe after the protestant reformation, stories and traditions of St. Nicholas became unpopular.

But parents here in England realized that someone had to deliver presents to their children on Christmas, so they turned St. Nicholas into Father Christmas.

In some countries like Austria and Germany, present-giving St. Nicholas became the “Christkind.” Christkind is a golden-haired baby with wings who symbolizes the newborn baby Jesus.

In the US, St. Nicholas became Kris Kringle. When the Dutch settlers in the US heard of St. Nicholas’s stories, they turned him into “Sinterklaas,” or as we say now, “Santa Claus.”

Most European countries celebrate St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6. In some countries like the Netherlands, children leave shoes or clogs out on December 5 for St. Nicholas to fill them with presents.

After years of unpopularity, St. Nicholas rose in prominence once again in the Victorian era. This era was when writers, artists, and poets rediscovered the old tales of St. Nicholas.

The Wrap Up

Father Christmas, as we know him today, may seem quite different from the St. Nicholas his tale was based on. But through years of changing traditions, he transformed into a known Christmas icon.

Nowadays, when you see a big jolly man dressed in red, you associate him with Christmas. So, if you’re doing Christmas shopping, you might as well buy a gift with a Santa design. And when you hand it over to someone, you can drop in the tale of how Father Christmas wasn’t always the man we know today.

For more content to get you in the spirit of Christmas, check out our other articles on the site.