Skip to Content

When did Santa Claus start?

The modern figure of Santa Claus has evolved over the centuries from stories, myths and traditions surrounding gift-givers around the world. Santa Claus has become a beloved and iconic figure, representing holiday cheer, hope, giving and childhood wonder.

When did people first start talking about Santa Claus?

The origins of Santa Claus can be traced back to stories involving historical figures such as St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas. These early gift-givers laid the foundation for the Santa Claus character we know today.

Some key early developments include:

  • St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop living in the 3rd century AD in what is now Turkey. He was known for his generosity, such as giving dowries to three impoverished sisters.
  • Sinterklaas was the Dutch version of St. Nicholas. He was depicted as an elderly, stately man with a white beard who rode a gray horse and distributed gifts on December 5th.
  • Father Christmas dates back to 16th century England as a figure associated with adult feasts and merrymaking.

By the 1800s, immigrant groups brought their various gift-giving figures and traditions to the Americas. These contributed to the modern American Santa Claus.

When did the modern American image of Santa Claus emerge?

The modern Santa Claus developed in America in the 1800s, shaped by various influences:

  • Washington Irving described Santa Claus in his 1809 book A History of New York as a jolly Dutch sailor who smoked a pipe and delivered gifts down chimneys.
  • In 1822, an anonymous illustrated poem entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” first portrayed Santa with reindeer pulling his sleigh.
  • Political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew images of Santa Claus that established his visual look, red suit and North Pole workshop in the 1860s-1880s.
  • Retailer J.W. Parkinson hired men to dress up as Santa in the 1890s to promote his Philadelphia store.

These elements all contributed to the American Santa Claus character that emerged at the end of the 19th century.

When did Santa Claus become mainstream?

Santa Claus became a mainstream cultural phenomenon in the late 1800s to early 1900s due to several factors:

  • Mass production of Christmas gifts, cards and decorations fueled a commercial boom around Christmas, with Santa as its symbol.
  • Retail stores capitalized on Santa’s image to boost holiday shopping.
  • Advertisements, children’s books and films spread images of Santa Claus far and wide.
  • Non-profit organizations such as the Salvation Army began dressing up as Santas to collect donations.

Some key events:

Year Santa Claus Milestone
1897 Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus editorial published, confirming Santa as real
early 1900s Department store Santas appear in stores across America
1930s Coca-Cola Santa illustrations define modern image of Santa

By the early 20th century, Santa Claus had been embraced as a beloved Christmas symbol and the version we know today was cemented in popular culture.

What are some modern controversies surrounding Santa Claus?

Despite his widespread popularity, Santa Claus has also faced controversies and criticisms over the decades:

  • Commercialism – Santa is seen as a symbol of excessive consumerism and ads encouraging children to want more toys and gifts.
  • Secularization of Christmas – Replacing religious aspects of Christmas with a secular Santa Claus figure is concerning to some.
  • Unrealistic standards – Santa is portrayed as an overweight old man, which could promote unhealthy body norms.
  • Surveillance – Santa “sees you when you’re sleeping” which some see as creepy in the modern digital age.

Parents also debate issues like when to tell kids the “truth about Santa” and whether lying about Santa could undermine trust.

What is Santa’s role in the modern Christmas season?

Despite debates, Santa remains an iconic and beloved figure today. Some of his modern roles include:

  • Symbol of holiday cheer, wonder and innocence for children
  • Figurehead of commercial Christmas marketing campaigns
  • common secular celebration point for an increasingly diverse population
  • Iconic character portrayed in family films, TV and advertising
  • Foundation of enduring holiday traditions like writing letters to Santa

For many people Santa Claus is a beloved childhood fantasy figure. But he also represents holiday spirit, giving, and joy to adults too. The story of Santa shows how myths can evolve over time while retaining public fascination. After centuries, Santa remains a lively legend and icon of the Christmas season.


Santa Claus is a legendary Christmas figure whose origins lie in historical gift-givers like St. Nicholas and Sinterklaas. The modern American Santa developed in the 1800s from poems, cartoons and retailing promotions. By the early 1900s, Santa became a mainstream festive symbol and his iconic look solidified. Despite some modern controversies over commercialism and lying to children, Santa remains a beloved part of Christmas traditions and celebrations today.