Is Santa Claus Just a Secular Saint Nicholas?

The Answer Is Not So Simple

Santa Claus with a wish list
Is Santa Claus Saint Nicholas? | About Catholicism. E+/Getty Images

In the United States, from Thanksgiving Day (or even Halloween) on, it's nearly impossible to escape the image of Santa Claus. While the War on Christmas has heated up in recent years, Jolly Old Saint Nick seems to have risen above it, adopted by the forces of American capitalism as a living symbol of the season of giving and getting. Even children whose families do not celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ grow up believing in Santa Claus.

And that can present challenges for parents who want to remind their children what the Christmas season is all about—and who want to use the story of Saint Nicholas of Myra to do so.

Santa Claus Versus Saint Nicholas

As one reader explained, while seeking my advice:

I've read about the custom of leaving shoes out for Saint Nicholas to put treats in on his feast day, and I'd like to start this with my children. But my children still believe in Santa Claus, and I'm having some trouble trying to figure out how to explain why we sometimes call him Santa Claus and sometimes call him Saint Nicholas. What would you tell them?

For 1,500 years, Saint Nicholas has been one of the most popular saints in Europe, but it's only in recent years that he's been "rediscovered" in the United States. Part of his newfound popularity, I believe, has to do with a healthy reaction against the overcommercialization of Christmas, of which Santa Claus has long been a symbol.

But wait—aren't Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus the same person? Not really.

The Rise of Santa Claus

There is a connection between the two, but it's less than many people think. Santa Claus is an American invention, an anglicization of Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. The Dutch, though Protestants, brought the European tradition of celebrating the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6) to America.

English settlers liked the custom, but wanting to be more Protestant than the Dutch, they didn't like the idea of celebrating a saint's feast day.

Thus, while they borrowed certain elements of the life of Saint Nicholas (his generosity and his love for children, for instance), they placed Santa Claus's home, the North Pole, about as far away from Asia Minor (Saint Nicholas's home) as they could. Some elements of the earliest depictions of Santa Claus, in fact, are drawn from Nordic legends, and physically, he resembles elements of both Thor and Odin.

Up on the Rooftop

The identification of Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas largely comes from a poem by Clement Moore, A Visit From St. Nicholas, which most people today know as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. While Moore identifies the title character as Saint Nicholas, his physical description, clothing, and his use of a sleigh and reindeer, along with the transfer of his visit from the night before Saint Nicholas's feast day to the night before Christmas, defined the modern picture of Santa Claus. (As David Emery of About Urban Legends points out, Moore's depiction also draws on English images of fat and jolly Dutchmen.)

From the time of the publication of Moore's poem in 1823, the historical figure of Saint Nicholas has faded into the background, replaced by the American fairy tale.

In itself, the fairy tale is fine, and Fr. Francis X. Weiser, S.J., in a little book entitled Religious Customs in the Family: The Radiation of the Liturgy Into Catholic Homes, suggests that Catholic families can maintain the fairy tale.

Reviving Devotion to Saint Nicholas

At the same time, however, Catholic parents should do as the reader is considering and revive devotion to Saint Nicholas. Treating December 6 as a significant feast day is one way to do so. On December 5, children can leave their shoes at the fireplace or outside their bedroom doors, and Saint Nicholas can visit in the middle of the night, leaving small toys, coins, and candy.

Then, on the feast day itself, the family can read about Saint Nicholas—the historical figure, not Santa Claus—and pray some prayers and sing some hymns to the saint.

Coming in the first week or two of Advent, the Feast of Saint Nicholas provides a foretaste of Christmas—and unlike Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas always reminds us that Christ is the reason for the season.

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Your Citation
Richert, Scott P. "Is Santa Claus Just a Secular Saint Nicholas?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2016, Richert, Scott P. (2016, December 5). Is Santa Claus Just a Secular Saint Nicholas? Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "Is Santa Claus Just a Secular Saint Nicholas?" ThoughtCo. (accessed December 16, 2017).