The Evolution of Santa Claus

Norman Rockwell | PC:

Norman Rockwell | PC:

Memento Artem


Ho Ho Ho! Here comes the rosy cheeked jolly man with the beard so white and the suit of red. He carries a bag over his shoulder with presents for all the good boys and girls. Sounds like the Santa Claus most of us grew up knowing, right?

Well, the magical man we know today has gone through quite the transformation over the years. In fact, we can trace his origins all the way back to the fourth century.

The story of Santa Claus starts with a monk named St. Nicholas. Nicholas is thought to have been born in 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Legend says he gave away all his riches and traveled to the countryside to help the poor and sick which eventually led him to being named the Bishop of Myra.

One famous story of St. Nicholas is when he saved three poor girls from prostitution. Mysteriously, three bags of gold were found inside the family’s home in stockings hung out to dry by the fire.

This and many other stories contributed to Nicholas eventually becoming the patron saint of children and over time his legend spread quickly throughout Europe.

Depictions of him were created for years to come and could be found as far as Russia, such as the icon of the saint dated 1294 found in a Lipnya Church.

Over time, the legend of St. Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus. Dutch immigrants introduced the figure of Sinterklaas to American culture. Thomas Nast, a cartoonist,  helped establish the visual identity of this jolly figure.

In his illustration from an 1863 issue of “Harper’s Weekly,” Claus wears a coat of stars riding in a sleigh delivering toys to soldiers. Later, Nast depicted the North Pole as Claus’ headquarters where toys were made and the famous “naughty and nice” list was kept.

In the 20th century we see the biggest refinement in the visual identity of Claus. One key work of art is from 1902 in which the Australian, Frank A. Nankivell, illustrated the cover for “Puck” Magazine.

Claus is slipping through a window on what is presumably Christmas Eve night where two women meet him to give him kisses on each cheek. From there, artists have contributed in shaping and refining the rosy-cheeked man to be the figure we know and love today.

Cameron Cizek is a senior studying computing.