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The History of Santa Claus and Other Beloved Christmas Traditions


As Christians, we know that Christmas is only about one thing – the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the birth of the King of Kings in a humble stable in Bethlehem. But celebrations of his birth over the centuries have led to some time-honored traditions that actually have spiritual significance as well, even Santa Claus.


Historian William Federer shared with CBN a number of enlightening facts about Christmas traditions.

"To enter into the Christmas spirit, it is necessary to remember the Christmas story of the birth of Christ," he explained. "One should also remember that there really was a Santa Claus, the godly St. Nicholas, who was willing to be imprisoned for his Christian faith under Emperor Diocletian, who preached against pagan immorality of Diana worship, who stood for the Bible and doctrinal purity at the Council of Nicaea, and who generously and anonymously helped the poor so that the glory would go to God."

Federer explains, as a child, St. Nicholas was known for his virtue, his avoidance of worldly pursuits, and his study of Scripture. He went into ministry and trained under his uncle. After assuming his uncle's congregation, his parents died and left him a substantial inheritance. 

St. Nicholas generously distributed to the poor and needy and ransomed those taken captive by debt. One such ransom became the basis for Santa Claus. A nobleman who had gone bankrupt lost all his property to creditors. The creditors threatened to take the man's three beautiful daughters which would doom them to a life of white slavery and prostitution. The nobleman's only option was to marry them; however he had no dowry to provide. When Nicholas heard of the man's desperate situation he secretly slipped a bag of gold through a window in the middle of the night for the first daughter's dowry. He later did the same for the second. Anticipating the same for the third, the nobleman caught Nicholas as he slipped the third bag of gold into a stocking hanging by the fireplace to dry. Nicholas swore the nobleman to secrecy until his death because he wanted all the glory to go to God. 

Throughout Nicholas' life, he worked hard to be a godly example in word and deed, spirit, faith, and purity. He died on December 6th, 343 AD. Stories of his life spread through Turkey and Greece and throughout the Roman Empire. Secret gift-giving on the anniversary of his death became a popular tradition.


Listed below William Federer shares the origins of other Christmas traditions:

First nativity scene - In 1233, St. Francis of Assisi was concerned about the emphasis being placed on gift-giving during the Christmas season. In order to redirect people's attention back to the birth of Christ St. Francis created the first nativity scene.

"Twas the Night Before Christmas" poem - In 1823, a young Episcopal priest and Hebrew professor at a theological seminary wrote an imaginative poem for his family entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas." This is the first author to mention St. Nicholas in a sled being pulled by reindeer. Today this poetic classic is known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Christmas stockings – In 1623, Dutch immigrants brought their Christmas traditions to New Amsterdam (later renamed New York) where they hung stockings on the chimney on St. Nicholas Eve. In the morning, the stockings were always filled with gifts for the children. The name "St. Nicholas" evolved from the Dutch "Sant Niklass" to "Sinter Klaas" to "Santa Claus."

Christmas tree lights – In 1520, Martin Luther was walking home on Christmas Eve. The sky was illuminated with stars. When he returned home, he set up an evergreen tree and placed numerous small candles on its branches. He used the tree to tell his children the true meaning of the Christ Child, the Light of the World, whose birth had brightened the sky of the first Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus Image – Thomas Nast, the American political cartoonist responsible for creating the Democratic "Mule" and the Republican "Elephant" sketched his first drawings of Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly Magazine in 1862. Over the next 22 years, Thomas would publish over 30 cartoons depicting Santa Claus as a jolly, plump man with an outgoing personality. In his final series of cartoons, Thomas was asked to do them in color. This was the first time Santa Claus was featured with a red suit with white fur trim. In the 1930s, Chicago artist, Haddon Sundblom, was contacted by the Coca-Cola Company to illustrate Santa Claus for their advertising campaign. For 33 years, he portrayed Santa Claus with ruby red lips, blue eyes, and a ruddy complexion. The new Santa took America by storm as the invention of the television and other media helped to market the image of Santa to kids everywhere.


Bill was raised in a Christian home in St. Louis the fifth of eleven children. At 24 he began dating his future wife Susan and noticed that her mom watched The 700 Club.  After accepting an invitation to attend a Christian men's business meeting, he went forward because the other men had something that he wanted.  He gave his life to Christ soon after.  Once married and living in Texas, Bill was drawn into politics during Pat's presidential run.  A former youth pastor, Bill stayed interested in politics and was asked to run against Rep. Richard Gephardt, which turned into one of the closest races in the nation. 

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