Where did Santa come from? How did Santa Claus evolve into the popular symbol of Christmas he is today?

For decades Santa has been known to all as the man in the red suit who delivers gifts to children on Christmas morning - but where did he come from?

What is the evolution of Santa Claus?
What is the evolution of Santa Claus?

Former primary school teacher and education resource expert at PlanBee, Laura Steele, explains where Santa Claus comes from.

Anglo-Saxons: Introducing King Winter

Sign up to our daily newsletter

During the fifth and sixth centuries, this character was known to the Saxons as Father Time, or King Winter.

It was a tradition to dress up as this figure, then be invited to your neighbour’s homes to eat and drink by the fire. The belief was that if you were nice to Father Time, the winter would be milder.

Vikings: Norse god Jul

At the time when Vikings settled in Britain in the ninth century, they held midwinter celebrations.

It was said that the Norse god, Odin, disguised himself as a character called ‘Jul’, wore a blue-hooded cloak and brought gifts to the good and punishments to the bad.

Tudors: The spirit of good cheer

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the idea of Father Christmas (or Old Man Winter as he was also known as) first appeared.

He was viewed as a figure that was connected to adult entertainment, like feasts and games. He was seen as a large man dressed in green or red robes who embodied the festive spirit of good cheer.

A Victorian revival

Following the time the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in 1644, the concept of Father Christmas became less popular, until it was resurrected in the Victorian era.

By the 19th century, family life was depicted as much more important, and Christmas became a time for children as well as adult celebration. Father Christmas was now known as a bringer of gifts.

Is Santa Claus the same as Father Christmas?

Whilst these two figures are pretty much one and the same today, the origins of Santa Claus were very different.

St Nicholas was a bishop who lived in the fourth century in what is now Turkey. He is thought to have helped a poor family by secretly dropping a bag of gold down the chimney for them to find. It landed in a stocking that had been put up to dry by the fire.

By the 12th century, the myth of St Nicholas was becoming increasingly well-known across Europe. The tradition of giving children gifts on the evening of December 5 (the day before St Nicholas’ Day) became popular.

In the Netherlands, markets selling toys and treats became popular, and people dressed up in red bishop’s costumes to impersonate St Nicholas (in Dutch his name was ‘Sint Nikolaas’, which evolved into the nickname ‘Sinterklaas’).

It was thought that Sinterklaas could pass through locked doors or climb down chimneys to leave presents in shoes and stockings. The story of Sinterklaas landed in North America through Dutch settlers in the 17th century, and his name was changed to Santa Claus.

By the 19th century, he had become the figurehead that we know today, thanks to an illustrated poem in 1821 which described Santa’s red coat, reindeer and sleigh, and changed the evening of gift-giving from December 5 to December 24.

Two years later in 1823, Clement Clark Moore wrote the now-famous poem that we know as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, in which the idea of Santa Claus as a jolly old man (rather than a bishop) was official.

By the 1880s, Santa Claus and Father Christmas had all but merged into the same festive figure in Britain.