If you were to ask people where the legend of Santa Claus began, they’d probably start by telling you that the name “Santa” is merely a moniker for Saint Nicholas, a man who existed a long time ago and was renowned for his generosity toward children.
We hear about Saint Nick in carols like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and stories like The Night Before Christmas, but beyond that the man remains a bit of a mystery.
By all accounts, his story begins in the fourth century AD in what is now modern-day Turkey. A man named Nicholas became the bishop of a village called Myra. He was later canonised, and soon became one of the most popular saints in Christianity.
That’s about all we know for sure but much of the folklore surrounding Saint Nick speaks of his kindness and generosity toward children, in a world where those attitudes weren’t easy to find.
Despite being the patron saint of many European countries including Russia, Austria, Belgium, France and Germany, it was in The Netherlands where we first began to see some semblance of the Santa Claus we’re familiar with today.
Each year, the much-loved saint was honoured during the Feast of Saint Nicholas (or Sint-Nikolaas), where parents would leave gifts for their children, who naturally believed Saint Nicholas had paid them a visit during the night.
Unlike the modern depictions of Santa, the Dutch version of Saint Nick rode on a horse (named Amerigo) and wore a tall pointy bishop’s hat.
In the same way kids today leave out a glass of milk with some cookies for Santa and his reindeer, Dutch children would fill their clogs with straw and carrots and leave them out for the horse to eat.
When they woke the next morning, they’d find the straw gone and their shoes packed with presents.
Santa's move to America
In the 200 years that followed, and as a means of preserving their culture and traditions in the face of British settlement, a group of Dutch intellectuals gathered together and called themselves the “Knickerbockers.”
A prominent member of the group was a writer named Washington Irving, who published a book called “The Knickerbocker’s History of New York”, containing satirical versions of Dutch traditions and stories.
Throughout the book there were several dozen references to a “Sinter Klaas” – an adaptation of “Sint Nikolaas” – accompanied by details of him flying across the sky in a wagon and dropped presents down chimneys for good little girls and boys.
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