It is believed that Santa Claus is actually an alteration of this same Saint Nicholas, Santa for Saint and Claus for Nicholas. The original Santa Claus (and many current European) outfits resemble a Bishop's clothing, hat, and staff. The modern figure of Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, whose name is a dialectal pronunciation of Saint Nicholas.
The 19th century was a time of cultural transition and many wanted
to domesticate the Christmas holiday. Through the first half of the
19th century, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and others continued
to regard December 25th as a day without religious significance.
In 1809, Washington Irving published the satirical fiction,
Knickerbocker's History of New York, with numerous references to a
jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop,
rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. Irving's work was
regarded as the "First notable work of imagination in the New
In 1810, the New York Historical Society commissioned artist
Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of Nicholas
for St. Nicholas Day. Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with
children's treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace.
During 1821, the first lithographed book in America, the Children's
Friend described how "Sante (sic) Claus" arrived from the North in a
sleigh with a flying reindeer. The anonymous poem and illustrations
proved pivotal in shifting imagery away from a saintly bishop. Sante
Claus rewarded good behavior and punished bad. Gifts were safe toys,
"pretty doll . . . peg-top, or a ball; no crackers, cannons, squibs,
or rockets to blow their eyes up, or their pockets. No drums to stun
their Mother's ear, nor swords to make their sisters fear; but
pretty books to store their mind with knowledge of each various
kind." The sleigh had a bookshelf for the "pretty books." The book
also marked Sante Claus' first appearance on Christmas Eve, rather
than December 6th. The book may have actually been penned a few
years earlier according to some accounts.
In 1823, a poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was penned. It is now
better known as "The Night Before Christmas."
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes - how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .
This is how St. Nicholas was transformed into Santa Claus.