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Photo of a little boy and little girl talking to Santa.

Santa Claus wasn't always a plump, bespectacled, red-suited elderly man.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CLASSICSTOCK/CORBIS

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic

Published December 20, 2013

Any kid can tell you where Santa Claus is from—the North Pole. But his historical journey is even longer and more fantastic than his annual, one-night circumnavigation of the globe.

The modern American Santa was born in the Mediterranean, evolved across northern Europe, and finally assumed his now-familiar form on the shores of the New World. Who is this Santa, and how did he get here?

You'll Know in a Moment, This Face Must Be St. Nick?

Images of St. Nicholas, Santa's original ancestor, vary considerably, but none of them look much like the red-cheeked, white-bearded old man we see everywhere today. One of the most compelling views we have of the real St. Nick was created not by ancient artists but by using modern forensic facial reconstruction.

The remains of the Greek bishop, who lived in the third and fourth centuries, are housed in Bari, Italy. When the crypt at the Basilica San Nicola was repaired in the 1950s, the saint's skull and bones were documented with x-ray photos and thousands of detailed measurements.

Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist at the University of Manchester (England), used these data and modern software simulations to create a modern reconstruction of the long-dead man. Wilkinson put a human face on Santa's original namesake—one with a badly broken nose, possibly suffered during the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Much of her work is necessarily subject to interpretation. The size and shape of the facial muscles that once covered Nicholas's skull had to be inferred, and the shape of that skull itself was recreated from two-dimensional data. Digital artists added details that were based on best guesses, including the olive-toned skin most common among Greek Mediterraneans like Nicholas, brown eyes, and the gray hair of a 60-year-old man.

"We are bound to have lost some of the level of detail you would get by working from photographs, but we believe this is the closest we are ever going to get to him," Wilkinson said in the BBC Two feature film of the project entitled The Real Face of Santa.

From St. Nicholas to Santa

How did this St. Nicholas become a North Pole-dwelling bringer of Christmas gifts? The original saint was a Greek born 280 years after Christ who became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly but developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the "Great Persecution," when Bibles were put to the torch and priests made to renounce Christianity or face execution.

Nicholas defied these edicts and spent years in prison before Constantine brought Christianity to prominence in his empire. Nicholas's fame lived long after his death (on December 6 of some unknown year in the mid-fourth century) because he was associated with many miracles, and reverence for him continues to this day independent of his Santa Claus connection.

Photo of a religious icon representing Saint Nicholas.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HEMIS/ALAMY
A religious icon representing St. Nicholas is shown.

Nicholas rose to prominence among the saints because he was the patron of so many groups, ranging from sailors to entire nations. By about 1200, explained University of Manitoba historian Gerry Bowler, author of Santa Claus: A Biography, he became known as a patron of children and magical gift bringer because of two great stories from his life.

In the better-known tale, three young girls are saved from a life of prostitution when young Bishop Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to their indebted father, which can be used for their dowries.

"The other story is not so well known now but was enormously well known in the Middle Ages," Bowler said. Nicholas entered an inn whose keeper had just murdered three boys and pickled their dismembered bodies in basement barrels. The bishop not only sensed the crime, but resurrected the victims as well. "That's one of the things that made him the patron saint of children."

For several hundred years, circa 1200 to 1500, St. Nicholas was the unchallenged bringer of gifts and the toast of celebrations centered around his day, December 6. The strict saint took on some aspects of earlier European deities, like the Roman Saturn or the Norse Odin, who appeared as white-bearded men and had magical powers like flight. He also ensured that kids toed the line by saying their prayers and practicing good behavior.

But after the Protestant Reformation, saints like Nicholas fell out of favor across much of northern Europe. "That was problematic," Bowler said. "You still love your kids, but now who is going to bring them the gifts?"

Bowler said that, in many cases, that job fell to baby Jesus, and the date was moved to Christmas rather than December 6. "But the infant's carrying capacity is very limited, and he's not very scary either," Bowler said. "So the Christ child was often given a scary helper to do the lugging of presents and the threatening of kids that doesn't seem appropriate coming from the baby Jesus."

Some of these scary Germanic figures again were based on Nicholas, no longer as a saint but as a threatening sidekick like Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas). These figures expected good behavior or forced children to suffer consequences like whippings or kidnappings. Dissimilar as they seem to the jolly man in red, these colorful characters would later figure in the development of Santa himself. (Related: "Who Is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil.")

St. Nicholas in America

In the Netherlands, kids and families simply refused to give up St. Nicholas as a gift bringer. They brought "Sinterklaas" and his enduring name with them to New World colonies, where the legends of the shaggy and scary Germanic gift bringers also endured.

But in early America Christmas wasn't much like the modern holiday. The holiday was shunned in New England, and elsewhere it had become a bit like the pagan Saturnalia that once occupied its place on the calendar. "'It was celebrated as a kind of outdoor, alcohol-fueled, rowdy community blowout," Bowler said. "That's what it had become in England as well. And there was no particular, magical gift bringer."

Then, during the early decades of the 19th century, all that changed thanks to a series of poets and writers who strove to make Christmas a family celebration—by reviving and remaking St. Nicholas.

Washington Irving's 1809 book Knickerbocker's History of New York first portrayed a pipe-smoking Nicholas soaring over the rooftops in a flying wagon, delivering presents to good girls and boys and switches to bad ones.

In 1821 an anonymous illustrated poem entitled "The Children's Friend" went much further in shaping the modern Santa and associating him with Christmas. "Here we finally have the appearance of a Santa Claus," Bowler said. "They've taken the magical gift-bringing of St. Nicholas, stripped him of any religious characteristics, and dressed this Santa in the furs of those shaggy Germanic gift bringers."

That figure brought gifts to good girls and boys, but he also sported a birch rod, the poem noted, that "directs a Parent's hand to use when virtue's path his sons refuse." Santa's thin wagon was pulled by a single reindeer—but both driver and team would get a major makeover the next year.

In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas," also known as "The Night Before Christmas," for his six children, with no intention of adding to the fledgling Santa Claus phenomenon. It was published anonymously the next year, and to this day the plump, jolly Santa described therein rides a sleigh driven by eight familiar reindeer.

"It went viral," Bowler said. But familiar as the poem is, it still leaves much to the imagination, and the 19th century saw Santa appear in different-colored clothing, in sizes from miniature to massive, and in a variety of different guises. "I have a wonderful picture of him that looks exactly like George Washington riding a broomstick," Bowler said.

It wasn't until the late 19th century, he added, that the image of Santa became standardized as a full-size adult, dressed in red with white fur trim, venturing out from the North Pole in a reindeer-driven sleigh and keeping an eye on children's behavior.

The jolly, chubby, grandfatherly face of this Santa was largely created by Thomas Nast, the great political cartoonist in an era that featured many. "However, Nast did leave him half-sized," Bowler added, "and in what I think are rather indecent long johns."

Once firmly established, North America's Santa then underwent a kind of reverse migration to Europe, replacing the scary gift bringers and adopting local names like Père Noël (France) or Father Christmas (Great Britain). "What he's done is pretty much tame these Grimm's Fairy Tales-type characters from the late medieval days," Bowler said. (Related: "Real Christmas Trees Save Water.")

Not Everyone Believes in Santa

Though he undoubtedly means well, Santa has certainly stirred up, and continues to create, more than his fair share of controversy.

In Russia, Santa Claus fell afoul of Josef Stalin. Before the Russian Revolution, Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz) was a favored figure of Christmas who had adopted characteristics of proto-Santas like the Dutch Sinterklaas. "When the Soviet Union was formed, the communists abolished the celebration of Christmas and gift bringers," Bowler said.

"Then in the 1930s, when Stalin needed to build support, he allowed the reemergence of Grandfather Frost not as a Christmas gift bringer but as a New Year's gift bringer," Bowler added. Attempts to displace Christmas in Russia were ultimately unsuccessful, as were Soviet attempts to spread a secular version of Grandfather Frost, complete with blue coat to avoid Santa confusion, across Europe.

"Everywhere they went after World War II, the Soviets tried to replace the native gift bringers in places like Poland or Bulgaria," Bowler explained. "But local people just sort of held their noses until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and returned to their own traditions."

Santa remains a politicized figure around the world. American troops spread their version of the jolly man around the world in the years immediately following World War II, and he was generally welcomed, Bowler said, as a symbol of American generosity in rebuilding war-ravaged lands.

Nowadays, however, people in many nations have Santa on their own naughty list, either because he represents the commercialization of Christmas at the expense of Christ or simply because he's not a local. "In places like the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Austria, and Latin America, they all have very strong anti-Santa movements because they are trying to preserve their native Christmas gift bringers and customs, and protect them from the North American Santa," he said.

Such efforts seem unlikely to stop a growing interest in Santa Claus, but their organizers may save him a few stops on his busy Christmas Eve schedule.

27 comments
Inda Luciano
Inda Luciano

When I was an infant everyone I knew in Puerto Rico celebrated the nativity on the 24th/25th, and baby Jesus brought the gifts. It seems as if little by little Santa was imported and now both icons, as well as the colors (red, green, white), are present in the island's festivities. But in our traditional customs, the main gift givers since colonization have been and remain the Three Magic Kings or Three Wise Men, and they come  on the day of Epiphany on January 6. The biblical account tells the story of three Magi coming from the east following the Star of Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, all symbols of luck and protection; to Christ, who according to the Magis the astros told was meant to be the king of the Jews. I remember this as being such a magical fantasy as a child. We would look to the stars to find the Star of Bethlehem that the Magis followed to our home, and we left snacks out for the wise men and grass and water for their camels. The family got together and we sang Christmas songs and danced. And when we woke up the next day there was grass and water all over the place lol, the snacks were eaten, of course  ;), and there were all these gifts! I remember them as the warmest most magical festivities. Now that my family lives in North America Santa has become even more prominent in our festivities, and I love taking pics with my family and Santa and acting out that fantasy for the little ones. But we celebrate both, and I will continue the Three Magic Kings tradition with my own family because I think it's beautiful. Great article! Happy holidays National Geographic and readers! xoxo

Federico Saavedra-Schlittler
Federico Saavedra-Schlittler

In Switzerland we still keep the festivity on december the 6th, then it comes a dear Samichlaus (the Swiss Santa) with his partner Schmutzli ready to take the children that behaved badly. On December 24th it also comes Christkind (baby Jesus) for more presents. I live in the USA now and although Santa Claus come home on Christmas to visit my daughter it also comes Samichlaus for a present on December 6th. I liked this article, I knew that it was a Germanic thing, but not all the story (or History) described here.

robert woodworth
robert woodworth

Nice article, but why is it there no Mention of the Scandinavian version of Santa?

It would be very very interesting to see the comparison between the one described here and why it has evolved differently in Scandinavia.

Thanks you.

Halldora Jonasdottir
Halldora Jonasdottir

NIce article, thank you :)


Here in Iceland we have 13 Yule Lads!


The first one comes during the night before the 12th of Dec, then the 2nd one the night after and etc, the last one comes the night before the 24th. Kids put a shoe in the window and get small presents from all of the Yule Lads... if they behaved ;) If not then they get a rotten potato :P

The Yule Lads use to be a bunch of misfits, sons of two trolls living in the mountains (the mom liked to abduct misbehaving children and the dad was a lazy dude, they also had a black Yule cat that ate people that didn't get new clothes for Yule).

The old Yule Lads were scary stealing misfits and teasing everyone but now they have adapt a bit to the red jolly Santa and the kids love them :)


Regarding X-mas we call it Yule here in Iceland, it starts at 18:00 on the 24th and is celebrated for 3 days (we have Yule eve on the 24th were people usually eat with their families and open presents after that from everyone, the 25th we have Yule day and the 26th we have 2nd Yule day... both of those days mostly revolves around good food and attend Yule parties with friends and family members) for most it's just a festive time of the year were we eat got food, give presents and enjoy time with loved ones.

Some celebrate Yule as Christmas, a religious holiday and go to churches.


http://www.iceland.is/images/the-icelandic-yule-lads.jpg


Luka Znid
Luka Znid

Hahaha here in slovenia we have 3 gift bringers! St. nicholas here known as "Miklavž" on the 6th, Santa here named "Božiček" (named after Božič, Christmas) and "Dedek mraz" translated into Grandfather Frost which brings gifts in the time after christmas and before new year.


Furthermore most comonly this is meant to be a children's thing here. Adoults do give each other present just not anything dramatic. Most people just celebrate one or two becouse its expensive to buy gifts that many times or celebrate them all and bring small gifts everytime. The only other alternative, which I know of, is that each of the 3 gift bringers gives gifts at diferent places in the family (for example, St. nicholas brings gifts at home, santa brings gifts at the granparents home, etc.)


It has to be noted that not everyone celebrates everything, st. nicholas being the most religious of all characters and "dedek mraz" (Grandpa frost) being the least.


Also I have to add: Very good article :)

Polina Mikhaleva
Polina Mikhaleva

Excellent article! However, as a Russian I wouldn't agree that the attempts to displace Christmas in Soviet Union were "ultimately unsuccessful". We don't pay as much attention to Christmas as most of the Western world seems to do. New Year is a much more significant and widely celebrated holiday with huge family dinners, visiting friends and gift exchange, whereas Christmas is more like a small after-celebration (maybe only very religious people make a big thing out of it) 

César Alonso-Borrego
César Alonso-Borrego

Un interesante artículo sobre los orígenes de Santa Claus y su evolución hasta convertirse en un anciano con sobrepeso de pelo y barba blancos y vestido de rojo.

ricardo h.
ricardo h.

"Nowadays, however, people in many nations have Santa on their own naughty list, either because he represents the commercialization of Christmas at the expense of Christ or simply because he's not a local. "In places like the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Austria, and Latin America, they all have very strong anti-Santa movements because they are trying to preserve their native Christmas gift bringers and customs, and protect them from the North American Santa,"

for as far as i know we have no anti-santa movements here in the netherlands. most people just celebrate both.

Ken Nolan
Ken Nolan

Here's an interesting National Geographic article on the history of Saint Nicholas.

Ken Nolan
Ken Nolan

Here's an interesting National Geographic article on the history of Saint Nicholas. 

Arthur Viente
Arthur Viente

Great article on the origins of Santa Claus. Growing a Jew, I found I was always exploring the origins of religion, it's icons and traditions; as I was always questioned by people around me. What's fascinating in this article is discovering that Santa Claus was probably more black than white due to his Mediterranean origins. Also interesting to see how our culture has commercialized something to a point where there is little meaning behind the icon beyond retail and sales. 

Joshua Borthwick
Joshua Borthwick

Christmas has become such a pervasive holiday in the United States that those of us who aren't particularly religious end up taking part in what has become a national tradition.  Santa Claus adds to that tradition in many ways - the commercialization of a holiday, child tamer, and a lot of media coverage.  He makes it possible for non-religious people to celebrate and enjoy the national holiday in the midst of its actual meaning.  Well done, Santa!

Jaye Crouse
Jaye Crouse

Love the Santa story . . . he was a real person who evolved overtime into an advertising icon and a source of wonderment and excitement for children.  

juan pablo zapata
juan pablo zapata

In Colombia we celebrate the nativity, and baby Jesus brings the gifts, but also Santa or Papá Noel, how it has been imported, in other countries of hispanoamerica, the gifters are the three wise men, and they come in the play on january 6.

Carolyn McNabb
Carolyn McNabb

Interesting and INFORMATIVE article on just who Santa Claus really is...

M M.
M M.

Growing up in Germany, we still celebrate December 6th, as Nikolaus and set out our shoes/boots or plates the night before to have them filled with candy, nuts and tangerines the next day. Naughty children get a switch instead. 


On December 24th we celebrate the "Christkind" (aka Christ Child or possibly known here somehow as Chris Kringle which has probably undergone a transformation/misspelling of the word and a misinterpretation of the person). 


However, we also celebrate Santa on the 25th - so it's nice to have so many "Christmas" traditions, spread out over several days when we tell the stories of Nikolaus, Christkind and Santa. 

J. Griffin
J. Griffin

Why do people insist on calling North and South America the "New World"?!!

It's just as old as any other part of the Earth!!

Makenzie Rogers
Makenzie Rogers

@Carolyn McNabb  Informative it was!  Now-a-days we all can easily identify who Santa is during the holiday season. It's interesting to know that his full identity (with the red suit outlined with white fur) as well as living in the North Pole with all his elves and reindeer wasn't made until the late 19th century. Interesting article.

spencer johnston
spencer johnston

@Jaleela Griffin 

p.s. I understand your concern that this may be considered ethnocentric.  However, during the era, the concept of globalization was merely just beginning to bud and geography played a significant role in the inwardness of intellectual thought, this being a prime example.  Also, historians often refer to the Western Hemisphere as the "new world" when referring to a time when it was still considered on such terms, such as the 16th and the 17th century.  For instance, if a historian was writing about emigration from European nations to the Americas, it wouldn't be appropriate historically to refer to the region as "the new world".  In this article, the author is attempting to illustrate the span of time and what it encompasses by using such words.  Such use I'd say appropriate.  Hope this helps. 

spencer johnston
spencer johnston

@Jaleela Griffin 

You make a great point.  However, understanding this is as easy as understanding why the "Far East" is referred to as such.  Many phrases that have become part of our everyday vernacular come to us from Western Europe.  To Western Europe, home to the countries that came to dictate a large portion of modern studies and thought, the regions we've come to refer to as North American and South America were very much uncharted territories and considered "new" in that they were previously unknown to these peoples. So, it's not that the land itself is new, or even that the discovery of the land is new to humankind in general.  Rather, it was a "new world" to this sphere that came to discover it for themselves the first time.

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