From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: the surprising origins of Kris Kringle

Any kid can tell you where Santa Claus is from—the North Pole. But his historical journey is even longer and more fantastic than his annual, one-night circumnavigation of the globe.The progenitor of the modern American Santa was born in the Mediterranean during the Roman Empire, his legend evolved across northern Europe, and he finally assumed his now-familiar form on the shores of the New World. Who is this ancestor of Santa, and how did he change over time? (See “Christmas in July—Inside a Santa Summer Camp.“)Jolly Old St. Nicholas?Every December 6, the faithful celebrate St. Nicholas Day in cities all over the world, with the largest ones taking place in Europe. Images of St. Nicholas vary considerably, but none of them look much like the red-cheeked, white-bearded old man seen everywhere today. One of the most compelling views of the real St. Nick, who lived in the third and fourth centuries, was created not by ancient artists but by using modern forensic facial reconstruction.Scholarly debate over where the remains of the Greek bishop rest continues to this day, but traditionally, it was believed that the bones of St. Nicholas were stolen by Italian sailors during the 11th century and taken to the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola on the southeast coast of Italy. When the crypt was repaired in the 1950s, the saint’s skull and bones were documented with x-ray photos and thousands of detailed measurements. (For theories on other possible resting places of St. Nicholas, read: “Could the Remains of Santa Claus Be in This Turkish Church?“)Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist at the University of Manchester (England), used these data and modern software simulations to create a modern reconstruction of the long-dead man. Wilkinson put a human face on Santa’s original namesake—one with a badly broken nose, possibly suffered during the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Share this post