Where Did Santa Claus Originate From? The History of Santa Claus Explained

The story of Santa Claus seems to be a tale as old as time, but the Christmas icon actually has his roots in a real-life person—the Catholic figure of St. Nicholas. And behind Santa's rosy-cheeked legend and reputation for treating kids to expensive and exciting gifts is a somewhat horrific tale of one man's genuine care for children.

The truth is, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are technically the same figure. St. Nicholas was a real, living person between the years 220 A.D. and 343 A.D. He was a Christian bishop, of Greek origin, during the time of the Roman Empire, according to National Geographic.

Santa Claus
A Merry Christmas' vintage illustration of Santa Claus flying his sleigh over of a small town, chromolithograph, 1906. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images/Getty

Two specific stories of St. Nicholas' saintly life inspired the modern-day idea of Santa Claus as a man who delivers presents to children out of the goodness of his heart. Consider yourself warned, though: The legends are a bit darker than one might expect.

"In the better-known tale, three young girls are saved from a life of prostitution when young Bishop Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to their indebted father, which can be used for their dowries," National Geographic explains.

The second story isn't much easier to hear, but you can draw a bit more of a direct line from it to the modern Santa Claus' love of children. "Nicholas entered an inn whose keeper had just murdered three boys and pickled their dismembered bodies in basement barrels," National Geographic notes. "The bishop not only sensed the crime, but resurrected the victims as well."

In spite of these bleak origins, people all around the world envision a much more wholesome story and atmosphere when they think of the more commercialized Santa Claus (who's also known as St. Nick). The image of a chubby man dressed in all red, who travels all around the world in a single night to share presents with children, and snack on milk and cookies, is one that's evolved over time.

It's believed that the idea of the modern-day Santa really came about in the 19th century, and he's a figure who has changed with the times when necessary. Now, in the 21st century, kids can even send Santa Claus an email of a handwritten letter, and they can also call a phone number to hear a voicemail message from the man himself. And it all stems from an actual historical figure who was focused on, among other things, protecting children.