What’s the history of Santa Claus?

Changing faces of Santa Claus traced to European Christian historic figure, later modernized by Coca-Cola illustrator

Santa Claus talks to community members at his home at Van Buer Plaza during the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce's annual Lights on Lincoln and Santa Comes to Town event held in downtown DeKalb on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

DeKALB – Dave Yanke saw firsthand how powerful the magic of Christmas can be for children when he arrived in downtown DeKalb for this season’s annual Lights on Lincoln parade.

The Sycamore resident who wore the classic red coat said he looks forward to the opportunity to help spread a little Christmas cheer.

“It was something that needed to be done,” Yanke said. “There were some spots that needed filling, and I stepped up.”

Whether he’s waving goodbye to Joliet children sending him off to the North Pole to prepare for Christmas Eve, collecting “What I want for Christmas” letters from Oglesby youth in the Illinois Valley, running a 5K in Crystal Lake or visiting swimmers at the Dixon YMCA, it seems Jolly Old Saint Nick is everywhere this time of year.

That’s sort of the point of Santa, said Dina Spoerl, exhibits team leader at Naper Settlement.

Chris Christensen, dressed as Buddy the Elf, jokingly separates Santa Claus and Russ Hyatt of Sundowner Entertainment, dressed as the Grinch before the start of the McHenry County Santa Run For Kids on Sunday morning, Dec. 3, 2023, in Downtown Crystal Lake. The annual event raises money for agencies in our county who work with children in need.

The outdoor history museum in Naperville has an exhibit this year titled “Santas Around the World: Exploring Winter Holiday Traditions.” The exhibit opened Dec. 6 and runs through Jan. 5. “Santas Around the World” showcases winter themes and the many iterations of Santa across history.

How did Santa Claus come to be? He likely was inspired by a Christian saint, St. Nicholas, The Associated Press reported.

Stories about St. Nicholas’ generosity appear in texts ranging from medieval manuscripts to modern-day poems.

Santa speaks with Torin Lynch, 8, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023 while visiting the Dixon YMCA pool. The Y staff plans fun events in the pool for the holidays including Easter, Christmas and Halloween.

Legend has it, Spoerl said, that Santa Claus was well known for gift giving. She said he was a very wealthy man coming from a family of wealthy merchants.

“He gave all his money away and would bring gifts to children and families who were having financial trouble,” Spoerl said. “That, in my opinion, is why he became so popular is because he was a true doer of good works.”

But there are different incarnations of Santa Claus from all over the world, from France and Germany to the U.S.

Spoerl said that what Americans have come to know as Santa Claus is derived from Sinterklaas, a Dutch tradition, and later adapted by marketing brands such as Coca-Cola.

“He makes his way, so to speak, to America by way of the Dutch and German immigrants,” Spoerl said. “It’s their incarnation, which was called Sinterklaas, that we get.”

Santa waves to a family as the Joliet police escorts him through Joliet as he heads to the North Pole to get ready for Christmas Eve on Saturday, Dec.16th in Joliet.

Sinterklaas was a man of the church, Spoerl said, resembling someone more akin to a bishop.

How did Americans go from that to “He had a broad face and a little round belly / That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly. / He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,” as describes the big man in the classic poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clark Moore?

“When we look at Santa Claus now, we see this jolly round fellow. Some people even give him the qualities of an elf. But that happened at the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century, where this changed to the more stoic figure of Sinterklaas in popular culture through Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post,” Spoerl said.

Around 1931, illustrator Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom was working for the Coca-Cola Co. and drew Santa Claus as he’s known today, with the red suit and fur, Spoerl said.

For Yanke, who gets to see that tradition up close, it’s worth high-fiving eager children for a half-hour before family photo ops.

“When I’m at one of the Santa Houses, kids are coming through the door with arms open and hugging,” Yanke said. “You’re always going to get the kids that are overwhelmed by everything – all the lights and this big guy in this big red suit. But they generally come around, and I think they’re very accepting.

“I think we’ve probably had more of a line for kids at the events than we’ve had in the past in a couple years.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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