Santa Claus, the jolly ol' gift-giver of the Christmas season, exists as he is today thanks to one poem. Penned by American writer Clement Clark Moore, a professor of Oriental and Greek Literature in New York City, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" painted today's version of Sta. Claus. Known, to date, as "The Night Before Christmas," the poem narrates:
Credited for drawing the modern-day Santa, Thomas Nast is a political cartoonist. His renditions of the jolly ‘ol gift-giver were published on New York’s Harper’s Weekly. Here, on the front page of the newspaper dated December 30, 1871, Nast’s Santa Claus pours through letters sent to him by children around the globe.
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;
Moore came to this image of Santa by drawing from the legend of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop known for his modesty, charity, and giving gifts anonymously. In one tale, St. Nicholas helped out a father and his three daughters, who were in need of money, by leaving coin purses filled with gold in their home. One version of the story relates that the saint had dropped a purse down the chimney. In yet another version, a bag of gold dropped down the chimney and into one of the daughter's stockings, which she had washed and hung over the fireplace to dry. St. Nicholas reportedly travelled across towns in a sleigh pulled by horses.
St. Nicholas' death anniversary, the 6th of December, eventually came to be St. Nicholas Day, which was celebrated with gift-giving. Eventually, the saint and this practice found their way into the Christmas tradition.
Meanwhile, Santa's North Pole workshop, his toymaker elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus, came from political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Referencing Moore's poem, Nast drew Santa not as an elf, as in the poem, but as a portly, rosy-cheeked old man with long white hair and a white beard, dressed in a red-and-white winter outfit that came to be iconic. Nast also came up with the list of "nice" and "naughty" children. His cartoons were published every December on New York's Harper's Weekly. It was the birth of the Santa Claus as we knew him today.