Christmas is around the corner and students have given more attention to one famous figure that the holiday has come to love: Santa Claus.
Thomas Rzeznik, an associate professor for the Department of History, shared the origins of Santa in the United States.
“The figure of Santa Claus is really this remarkable combination of stories and legends,” Rzeznik said. “So, the Santa that we have today is sort of a mashup of religious figures with a commercial character.”
Santa is also recognized by the name of Saint Nicholas. Rzeznik explained the origin of both figures and how they have grown to become today’s Christmas gift bearer.
“Some people really draw the connection all the way back to the legends of Saint Nicholas, who was a saint from the late Roman empire who was known as being a gift-giver, known for his charity,” Rzeznik said. As a result of the saint’s generosity, people mark his feast as a time to give gifts.
The modern Santa also represents a more secular stance rather than religious. To explain the cultural gap, Rzeznik points to the Protestant Reformation.
“The movement turned away from Catholic saints,” he said. “The figure of Saint Nicholas sort of fell out of favor. But he was still retained as a popular feast day in certain areas of Europe, particularly Germany and the Netherlands.”
It was here that the secularized Santa led to the development of another Santa-like figure – Kris Kringle.
While German and Dutch immigrants had brought the idea of Santa Claus to New York, the modern-day Santa was really developed through the work of writers and artists. Rzeznik explained that much artistic imagining was drawn from Clement Clarke Moore, the author of The Visit of St. Nicholas, better known as Twas the Night Before Christmas. Rzeznik also noted that Thomas Nast, a famous political cartoonist, also contributed to the Santa figure in the 1880s.
“He drew a very famous depiction of Santa Claus as a sort of fat, bearded gentleman wearing the red suit, carrying a sack of toys,” Rzeznik said. “And so, it was because of him that we started to get the image of Santa being a jovial gift bearer in the U.S.”
The University of Exeter reported belief in Santa peaks at age five and fades by eight. Joseph Kajon, a freshman mathematics major, attributed his long period of belief to popular holiday traditions.
“I still held some hope that Santa was real up until I was 14 years old,” he said. “I just learned about Santa through regular Christmas celebrations, like visiting him in a mall or watching Christmas movies.”
Vicelle Juanites, a freshman economics major, said she believed in Santa until the age of five. “After that, I realized he wasn’t real,” Juanites said. “But I still embraced the idea of him.” Similar to Kajon, Juanites learned of Santa through classic stories and songs, but what really bolstered her belief was the classic mall visit. Taking a photo and sharing the wish list was all it took.
“On Christmas morning, I would receive exactly what I asked for,” Juanites said. Although Kajon believed longer than most children, he still plans to let his future children believe for as long as they wish.
“I feel like flat out saying Santa is not real takes away from the Christmas magic,” he said.
Although his parents are aware that he does not believe, Kajon shared that some of his gifts are still labeled from Santa. To him, it’s part of what makes Christmas special.
Catherine San can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.