Although his roots reach back into antiquity, the man we know as Santa Claus has been refined and popularized largely through the media of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact, two written accounts—Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and the New York Sun’s famous response to young Virginia O’Hanlon’s 1897 query about him - probably did the most to establish Santa as a figure in the popular imagination.
But, even though his most memorable features are relatively recent, Santa Claus evolved from many sources over many years—most notably from the life and deeds associated with St. Nicholas, an early Christian bishop in the land of Asia Minor, in what is now western Turkey.
These days, the Vatican has its doubts about St. Nicholas. A special report penned in 1969 by senior Church officials concluded that many of the recorded deeds of some of the early saints—including the forerunner of Santa—may well be those of legendary heroes rather than historical personages.
The records of Nicholas’s life certainly appear to be a mixture of fact and fantastic myth, but there is no denying the impact that this revered figure had on the development of the Santa Claus tradition. As a saint, he remains immensely popular in Europe, where there are more churches named for him than for any apostle.