The Greek Roots of Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nikolaos of Myra, was a 4th-century Christian saint and the Greek Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (Greek Anatolia in present-day Turkey). He is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker because of the numerous miracles ascribed to his intervention. He was known for hidden gifts, such as slipping coins into the shoes of folks who had left them out for him. 

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Many legends about Saint Nicholas’ generosity have been reported, including the story of the poor man and his three daughters. St. Nicholas slid a sack full of gold down the man’s chimney to spare the daughters from being sold into prostitution due to a lack of dowries. It landed in one of the eldest daughter’s hung-to-dry stockings. She might be married now. The other two daughters hurriedly hung stockings for St. Nicholas to fill with gold so that they, too, may get gifts from him.

Saint Nicholas is said to have died on December 6, 343, according to several sources. Stories of his miracles and work for the needy spread around the world over time. He was recognized as a defender of children and sailors, as well as a giver of gifts. Until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, he was a popular saint in Europe. The Reformation was a religious movement that led to the foundation of Protestantism, which rejected the practise of recognizing saints. Saint Nicholas, on the other hand, remained a popular icon in Holland.

The Dutch continued to commemorate Saint Nicholas’ feast day on December 6 as does the Greek Orthodox Church. It was customary for children to put their shoes out the night before. They would find the gifts that Saint Nicholas had left for them in the morning. In the 1700s, Dutch immigrants brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas, also known as Sint Nikolaas or Sinterklaas, to America.

In America, Saint Nicholas underwent several changes: Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, and instead of presenting gifts on December 6, he became associated with the Christmas celebration. Saint Nicholas is characterized as a joyful, big guy who comes down the chimney to leave presents for deserving children and drives a sleigh carried by flying reindeer in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1820 poem “An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas.”

With an 1881 image of Santa in a red outfit with white fur trim, cartoonist Thomas Nast added to the Saint Nicholas mythology. Saint Nicholas, who was once a kind and charitable Greek bishop, had evolved into the commercialized Santa Claus we know today.

The odd Greek twist to all this, in Greece today, Agios Vasilis (St. Basil) is seen as the gift giver of New Year’s Day, when Greeks celebrate Saint Basil’s Orthodox Name Day. All Greeks named Vasili (Bill) and Vasiliki (Vicky) celebrate their names on New Year’s Day.

Greek Gateway