Once a year, millions of children around the world eagerly wait for a plump, bearded man dressed in red and white to bring them presents. Known as Santa Claus, his origins are mysterious and his very existence has been disputed. Some people believe that he lives and works in the North Pole, employs a group of elves to manufacture toys, distributes the gifts annually with the aid of flying reindeer, and regularly utters “ho ho ho” in a commanding voice.
But is Santa Claus man or myth? Santa proponents argue that he is commonly sighted at shopping malls, that the disappearance of milk and cookies left for him is evidence of his existence, and that, after all, those Christmas gifts have to come from somewhere.
Santa opponents argue that no one man could deliver presents to millions of households in one night, that his toy factory has never been located in the vicinity of the North Pole, and that Christmas presents are really purchased in secret by parents.
Santa Claus, as we know him today, first appeared in North America in the early 19th Century, but his ancestor is believed by many to be St. Nicholas, a monk born around 280 AD in what is now known as Turkey. Reputed to be kind and generous, St. Nick became the subject of several legends, and his Dutch name, Sinter Klaas (shortened from Sint Nikolas) eventually evolved into Santa Claus. Early images of Santa portrayed him wearing a variety of robes, hats, and colored stockings, and he looked nothing like the familiar rotund figure we know today.
Santa’s modern appearance has been traced to an 1822 poem titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “The Night Before Christmas”), written by American author Clement Clarke Moore, which described him as having a “beard on his chin… as white as the snow,” and being “chubby and plump.” He was also described as being “little,” and was pulled in “a miniature sleigh” by “eight tiny rein-deer.”
In the late 19th Century, the classic Santa we know and love came into being, dressed in a red outfit trimmed with white fur, in images drawn by illustrator Thomas Nast and first published in Harper’s Weekly from 1863-1866. Santa remained half-size, however, until later in the century. Before Nast’s interpretation emerged, one portrayal of Santa in Harper’s Weekly showed him beardless and in a sleigh pulled by a turkey. Contrary to a common misconception, the Coca-Cola Company did not invent the red-suited Santa, although they did feature the jolly gift-giver dressed that way in a 1930s advertising campaign, which may have led to the popularization of this instantly-recognizable outfit.
The first time Santa was spotted in a department store was in 1890 in Brockton, Massachusetts, although some believe it was nothing more than the store owner, named James Edgar, dressed in a costume.
In the UK and some other English-speaking countries, Santa Claus is known as Father Christmas, and in French-speaking areas he is known as Père Noël. Each of these alternate Santas was once a distinct individual, but they are now virtually synonymous.
In 1955, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) began tracking Santa’s yearly flight, a tradition that was adopted in 1958 by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, known as NORAD. With the use of radar and satellites, NORAD follows Santa’s progress as he delivers his Christmas present payload. According to NORAD, the satellites use infrared sensors to detect the bright red nose of one of Santa’s reindeer, known as Rudolph.
Whether or not Santa Claus is real, his presence is felt around the world each Christmas, and his popularity only seems to grow every year. He appears in movies, shopping centers, at Christmas parties, and, many believe, in chimneys everywhere, carrying his sack full of presents.
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