The model seen above is a porcelain, hand-painted figurine of Santa Claus, the fundamental symbol of the Christian holiday of Christmas. Created from the legacy of Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus is known for giving gifts to children who have displayed good behavior throughout the year. Saint Nicholas was thought to have a long, white beard, but the rest of the features that make up the modern day Santa are derived from Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 19th century poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The model depicts Moore’s version of Santa Claus, a man dressed in a red suit with a full belly and burly white facial hair. Over his shoulder is a sack of toys that the Christian tradition says will be placed under the Christmas trees of deserving children each Christmas Eve. This figurine is used as decoration during the Christmas season as Santa Claus has evolved into the quintessential symbol of the Christmas holiday as a whole.
Christmas is one of the most widely renowned holidays, celebrated by millions of people worldwide. Christmas originated from the pagan holiday Saturnalia, but eventually became devoted to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ as people converted to Christianity in the Roman Empire. Today, many celebrate this holiday by attending church services to honor Jesus and the many blessings he brought to the Christian people. However, many traditions have started to focus more around Santa Claus and the gifts that he brings rather than celebrating the life of Jesus. This is why each December 25th, millions of children around the world patiently wait for gifts to be magically delivered by a large man riding flying reindeer as they sleep.
It is difficult to determine how gift giving has become centered around the fictitious character of Santa Claus, but it is widely believed that the legend of Saint Nicholas’s charity is the basis of this tradition. Saint Nicholas was believed to have been born in 270 AD in the village of Patara, located in modern day Turkey. Some say that he eventually earned the title of a Saint by “obeying Jesus’ words to ‘sell what you own and give the money to the poor,’” and using his “whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering” (Siefker, 8). One specific story involves Nicholas selflessly aiding an impoverished family of three young daughters.
According to the legend, the father had little money to support the family, but desired to marry off his children in order to give them better lives. In order to pay for his children’s marriage dowries, he intended to sell the oldest into prostitution. Upon hearing this, Nicholas secretly threw bags of golden coins into their family home after they had gone to sleep. He repeated this action for three nights until the family had enough to fund the dowries. Though he wanted to keep his identity a secret, the father eventually caught him, desperate to thank their anonymous savior. After news spread, he went on to become the Bishop of Myra, earning the affection of the Myran people (Wilson, 1).
Despite being prosecuted by the Roman Empire in the year 303 AD for his Christian beliefs, Nicholas refused to compromise his faith in exchange for his safety. This earned him the title of Saint Nicholas. After his death, stories of his generosity were passed down through generations until he eventually evolved into the large, white bearded man known today. As Professor William O’Barr states, “over the years, the myth has been embellished with other details: writing letters to Santa, leaving cookies, milk, and carrots for Santa and the reindeer, the toyshop at the North Pole, the elves who assist him, Mrs. Santa Claus, and mall Santas, just to name a few” (O’Barr, 3).
Although the idea of Santa Claus as St. Nicholas has transformed over the years, it has remained an important component of Christmas celebrations. Santa’s influence has become so widespread that the holiday has been adopted by non-Christians around the world. In fact, many families with no religious affiliation or different religious beliefs decorate their homes and exchange presents on this day. According to the Pew Research Center, “a big majority (81%) of non-Christians in the U.S. also celebrate Christmas” (Lipka, 1). Despite the Christian messages that the original Santa Claus portrays, more than half of the American population still chooses to celebrate this holiday. This may explain why this specific figurine came from a set of multiple Santa Claus figurines performing various secular activities, including skiing and playing baseball.
Although non-Christians have taken an interest in the joyful festivities that this figure has come to represent, the origins of Santa Claus are founded on Christian religious beliefs. The legacy of generosity and giving associated with Santa Claus continues to serve as a reminder of Saint Nicholas’s devotion to Jesus and Christianity.
By Liza Karras, Jennie Margolis, and Sang Kim
Lipka, Michael. “Americans and Christmas: 5 facts.” Pew Research Center. Last modified December 21, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/21/5-facts-about-christmas-in-america/
Nast, Thomas. Christmas Drawings for the Human Race. Illustration. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1889.
O’Barr, William. “Advertising and Christmas.” Advertising & Society Review 7, no. 3 (2006) https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed March 19, 2017).
Pope-Hennessy, John and Kanter, Laurence B. Italian Paintings in The Robert Lehman collection. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.
Siefker, Phyllis. Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc, 1997. PDF e-Book.
Wilson, Ralph. “The Real St. Nick (Santa Claus, Christmas) – Christian Articles Archive.” The Real St. Nick (Santa Claus, Christmas) – Christian Articles Archive. Accessed March 16, 2017. http://www.joyfulheart.com/christmas/st-nick.htm.