Santa and Sue

It's a pretty well established fact that the NAME, "Santa Claus" is an Anglicized version of Sinter Klaus from the Dutch but where DID the character we know as Santa Claus actually come from?

Santa Claus is such a beloved tradition that for some reason, Christians hang on to him for dear life, insisting that his origin is in a Catholic Bishop who lived long ago.

I have found this connection ridiculous, even as a child. Here's why:

Santa is fat
St Nick was slender

Santa rides in a sleigh in the sky
St Nick walked around the town

Santa goes down the chimney
St Nick left his gifts in shoes outside folks' doors

Santa lives at the North Pole
St Nick lived in a real town in warm Mediterranean country

Santa has a special suit
St Nick dressed like a priest or bishop

Santa comes on Christmas
St Nick came on Dec 6 possibly on the eve of the Immaculate Conception?

Santa is married by some accounts
St Nick was celebate

Santa Claus is about receiving gifts, that being the focus of his existence i.e. he gives us gifts - we are not expected to reciprocate

St Nick was about being a priest and bishop with his focus on the Christian life

When my mother tried to tell me about Santa Claus, I looked amazed. "How can one person visit ALL the homes in the world on Christmas eve especially when the way he comes (down the chimney) is not the quickest way to enter a home?  And what about all the homes which HAVE NO chimney?" (I was thinking of our home, for example)  I was 3 years old at the time.  My mother was so amazed at the logical questions from a child this small that she walked away, muttering under her breath.

Of course, now in a time where sometimes superstition and science get confused, one sharp scientist, North Carolina State University’s Dr. Larry Silverberg, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has come up with an explanation of how Santa can deliver all those presents to all the kids in the world in one night

"Based on his advanced knowledge of the theory of relativity, Santa recognizes that time can be stretched like a rubber band, that space can be squeezed like an orange and that light can be bent," Silverberg says. "Relativity clouds are controllable domains – rips in time – that allow him months to deliver presents while only a few minutes pass on Earth. The presents are truly delivered in a wink of an eye."

Santa can also, using cell phone technology, listen to kids' thoughts and that way know what kids want, says Dr Silverberg.

There are some serious problems with his theory.  To be outside earthtime, Santa would have to travel in space and unless he was not human, he could not do so unless he wore a space suit.  Also, a reindeer pulled sled would NOT serve as a space worthy vehicle. (That's assuming that reindeer could fly of course, an assumption that a smart scientist like Dr Silverberg, could not, in true sanity, make).  Everyone, reindeer and Santa alike, would run out of Oxygen to breathe way before they got to the place where they would be outside of earthtime! :)

And last I heard, cell phone technology could not read minds.

So even for space age kids, the idea of Santa delivering all the gifts in one night holds serious problems....

So who IS this strange character if not St Nicolas the 4th century Bishop of Myra.  Following a long path on the internet and researching both the Encyclopedias Britannica and Americana, I may have solved the mystery, at least partially.

Although Santa Claus is NOT based on the 4th century Bishop of Myra, he appears to be at least, in part, based on the Dutch character known as "SinterKlaas" which Dutch settlers brought with them to the United States.  Turns out that SinterKlaas actually DOES stand for St Nicolas in Dutch and also I was told by a Dutch lady that SinterKlaas had nothing to do with Christmas but rather had his own holiday on Dec 6.  (for a longer explanation of how SinterKlaas was derived, see note at the end of this document).

Actually the Dutch whose mythology provided Santa's name and some of his attributes, did provide an explanation for how "SinterKlaas" could visit all the children's homes in the world - he had helpers who dressed up like him. SinterKlaas did wear ecclesiastical robes and a Bishop's hat (a miter).

SinterKlaas was also more rotund than the 4th century Bishop and he walked around on the rooftops, dropping presents down the chimney of each home he visited. It was never explained how he got up on the roof however.   He was said to carry a book in which he had written whether children had been "good" or not.

However, here the resemblance of Santa Claus and SinterKlaas ends.  SinterKlaas lived in Spain whereas St Nicklaus was the Bishop of Myna, Turkey.  No explanation is given as to SinterKlaas' residence being different from the Bishop upon which he was said to be (very loosely) based.

Far as I can tell, the English settlers appear to have picked up the name and anglicized it, attributing some of SinterKlaas' attributes to THEIR Christmas saint, "Father Winter" who was one of the key figures of the Winter Solstice Celebrations.

Father Winter appears to have combined the attributes of several of pagan gods.  Like Thor, he dressed in red and flew through the air on a chariot but unlike Thor, his chariot (which became a sleigh) was not pulled by goats but by reindeer. The reindeer were believed to be manifestations of the god, Hermes.  Like Thor, Father Winter's element was fire and he came through the fireplace which was believed to be an altar to him.  Like Thor, he was a benevolent character and a protector of the people and a lover of kids.

Combining SinterKlaas with Fr Winter became what we now know as Santa Claus!  However, the particulars on how this might have occurred appear to be lost in antiquity.  Some accounts say that what we know as Santa Claus was entirely an invention of a couple of American writers in the 1800's in order to establish some American customs which were non religion based.  A show on the History channel stated:

In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. As his prominence grew, Sinter Klaas was described as everything from a "rascal" with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a "huge pair of Flemish trunk hose."

The accepted account in most sources is that the person who gave Santa Claus his attributes as well as his transportation and reindeers was Rev. Clement Moore, an episcopal priest who wrote an account of the "visit of St Nick" for his kids in 1820.  However, there are some historians who say that Moore likely did not write the poem which we now know as "The Night Before Christmas".  Regardless of who authored the poem, Santa Claus is pictured as an elfin character, rather tiny with godlike attributes. Where the author of this poem got the idea for his descriptions seems to have been buried in antiquity - it's more likely based on a pagan god like Thor than on the Bishop of Myra simply because the elfin Santa bears no resemblance to the good bishop but strong resemblance to the pagan legends which proceeded it.  Insisting that the poem was written by a clergyman, may have been a way to 'sell' Santa to the religious public.  I have read the refuttal of Moore's authorship of the poem and they have some really good points suggesting he did not write it at all.

In a new book, "Author Unknown," (Henry Holt & Company) Mr. Foster argues that "A Visit From St. Nicholas," first published anonymously in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper in 1823, closely matches the views and verse of Henry Livingston Jr., a gentleman-poet of Dutch descent. Livingston, who lived in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., died before Moore was ever named as the poem's author.

Bottom line is though, regardless of the origin of Santa Claus, whether in Rev Moore's poem or pagan antiquity or both, he bears no resemblance whatsoever, to the Bishop of Myra and having Santa as a part of Christmas may be more than non necessary noise.  It may actually fracture a budding belief in the Creator in children who in finding out the falsity of Santa, are too young to think through the difference between Santa (who IS godlike) and the Creator.  The fact that the Santa Claus myth teaches values of questionable Christian significance like it's more fun to receive than give, or it's ok for parents to lie sometimes, should be considered by Christian parents before they decide to share THIS bit of antiquity with their offspring.

There are several references arguing the possible pagan origins of Santa - here is one:


Let me quote from a nineteenth century book on nordic mythology, H.A. Grueber's Myths of Northern Lands, published in 1895. He wrote:

Thor was the god of the peasants and the common people. He was represented as an elderly man, jovial and friendly, of heavy build, with a long white beard. His element was the fire, his color red. The rumble and roar of thunder were said to be caused by the rolling of his chariot, for he alone among the gods never rode on horseback but drove in a chariot drawn by two white goats (called Cracker and Gnasher). He was fighting the giants of ice and snow, and thus became the Yule-god. He was said to live in the "Northland" where he had his palace among icebergs. By our pagan forefathers he was considered as the cheerful and friendly god, never harming the humans but rather helping and protecting them. The fireplace in every home was especially sacred to him, and he was said to come down through the chimney into his element, the fire.

Every Yule, the good god Thor would visit every home with an altar to him (i.e., every home with a fireplace!) and bring gifts to children, who would put out their sabots (wooden shoes) the night before. Good children would receive gifts of fruit, candy and pieces of coal to burn in the fireplace.

He had another name to the ancients, Kris Kringle, Christ of the Wheel. This was his name as solar deity, reborn at the winter solstice, as the wheel (yule) of the sun turned slowly around. Again, the church pretends that Kris Kringle is the germanic expression, Kristkind (Christ-child). But if that is true, why has it always applied to Santa Claus, and not to the baby?

Yule was a time of feasting and celebrating the eventual end of the winter. The word Yul meant wheel and the day of Yul was the first day the sun visibly turned in its long drop toward the horizon, the day the sun-wheel turned. The month of December was also called Yule, but it was a different word, the word Geol or feast. December was a month of feasting to our ancestors.

The aspects of Yule or Christmas are all of pagan origin. The mistletoe (banned by the early church, by the way) was an ancient symbol of rebirth, being associated with the menstrual blood of the mother. Traditionally, couples "kissing" or making love under the mistletoe would have a child of their own in the coming year. Later, the mistletoe was symbolic of engagement.

The holly was also sacred, maintaining its greenness on the sacred oak. It symbolized eternal life.

The fir tree was the ancient grove of the Goddess brought into the house. We call it a Christmas tree, but the Germans use the old word, tannenbaum, literally "fir tree."

Gift-giving, feasting, burning the yule-log, displaying circular wreaths (symbol of the sun's wheel), and singing carols (literally, "dances"!) are all of pagan origin. <<<<<<<< [1]

Admittedly the writer is of the pagan mindset and goes on to dispute whether St Nicholas, the bishop was a real person, a fact which evidentally Catholics cannot prove real well either, but this, of course, can be an advantage. He has no need to "Christianize" customs which are not Christian.

As an adult my objections to Santa Claus being a part of MY Christmas have been:

1. He's unnecessary.  Can not a child better relate to the beautiful Christ child story and the infant in the manger than some strange god-like being which travels in the sky in a sleigh?

2. Telling a child about Santa Claus is telling them something you know to be untrue.  Will this make them doubt God when they find out that Santa Claus was a lie? 

The jury is still out on this but the following quote gives us some interesting comments:

>>>>I do believe we would do well as Christians to beware of the Americanized version and cultural story of Saint Nicholas. We teach our children through tradition and songs that Santa Clause sees them when they are sleeping, knows when they're awake, and knows if they've been bad or good. He is a being with unbelievable abilities. He can visit every house in the world in twenty-four hours. Santa is a figure being portrayed as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. Santa Clause sure sounds a lot like God! What happens when we finally tell our children that Santa Clause really doesn't exist, but God does?! Isn't God also omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient? To make matters worse, God cannot be seen. He is invisible. A child is prone to reasoning that if Santa (and the Easter Bunny for that matter) does not exist, maybe God doesn't exist either. As adults we can separate Santa from God, and view Santa as a cultural, mythical figure associated with Christmas cheer, but a child does not have the logic of an adult and is likely to confuse the two, which might hinder their faith in the real person of Jesus Christ. I do not claim that a child who has believed in Santa will reject God. I myself was taught to believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, and still believed in God. I did, however, briefly question God's existence when I found out that Santa and the Easter Bunny did not truly exist.<<<<< [2]

This writer's conclusion is of the common American opinion, that a belief in Santa Claus will NOT make it impossible for children to 'believe in' God. i.e. his view is that when kids find out their parents lied to them about Santa, they will "get over it".

In truth, it is unknown how much damage this 'small lie' does to our children and it is a subject which none of us even want to think about.  Most people I know, feel that "white lies" (those are good lies which supposedly hurt no one) are ok to participate in.  However, in the Catholic viewpoint of sin, and in the Biblical literature, there is no distinction made between 'different types of lies'.  Any lie is considered a sin.

On another level, if parents have lied about Santa Claus to children, do some children question what OTHER things parents might have lied about?  Indeed, our harmless 'myths' may be more seriously damaging our creditability with our kids than we give them credit for doing.

How people celebrate the Winter Solstice (which really is what Christmas is) is their own choice and whatever the choice, it should be respected.  I always chose to celebrate the Birth of Christ primarily and this was my choice.  I see no harm in celebrating both together, however, just as long as we decide what our focus IS to be.

But pretending that a figure pretty obviously based on pagan beliefs, was of Christian origin is not a good thing to do if for no other reason than the old adage "know ye the truth and the truth shall make you free".

And if I, as a child, saw clearly that Santa Claus (or Sinter Klaus) bore no resemblance to St Nicholas, the bishop, I am sure other children are seeing this clearly as well and thinking parents a bit silly for trying to force a resemblance which does not exist.  Give kids credit... they ARE tiny human beings! :)

article by SueW


Note: etymology of SinterKlaus in Dutch (by Marika of listserve, reprinted by permission of author)

Klaas is short for Nikolaas or Nicolaas <both spelling are in use>  (similar to the American Bill = William, Bob = Robert Jack=John <that one always stumped me> etc.)  I had a friend named Nikolaas (he was born on Dec. 6 ... ) Generally he was called Klaas, his mom called him Nicolaas Peter Janszoon Jansen when she was mad at him, and Nikki if he was hurt and needed a hug....

Sint (meaning saint) in older forms (where it had to match gender and case etc.- I am seriously happy that Dutch is simpler than it once was ... my mom has gone through 3 official spelling conventions) was often Sinte <perhaps even with French influence ...Sainte...> Sinte is still seen in some older songs - hence: Sinte Klaas, eventually was transformed into Sinterklaas - the r probably came in through usage since in Dutch it is easier to say sinterklaas than sinte klaas.  Dutch also tends to combine words ... for example:

 appel = apple sinasappel = literally means "apple of sinai" or "orange".  In the south of Holland is is sometimes called appelsine -same thing sinasappelsap = "juice of the apple of sinai", you guessed it - orange juice sinasappelsapglas = "sinai apple juice glass"  = orange juice glass ... etc. Makes for loads of fun playing scrabble! Oooh - sinasappelsapglas on a 3x word value ..... of course you would need a couple of blanks since there aren't that many "p"s in the game.... Here endeth the Dutch language lesson (now if someone could tell me why in English the language of the Netherlands is called Dutch - probably someone confused it with German (Deuts) - ahhh got to love that etymology stuff!

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References to endnotes:



[3] Encyclopedia Americana online

[4] Encyclopedia Britannica online

[5] Marika of listserve

Other references:

New York Times (2000) : 

The history channel show on Christmas:

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