Why does Santa wear red? History of Saint Nicholas and how he has changed over the years

Coca Cola is widely believed to be responsible for the modern image we have of Santa today

Today, Father Christmas is the jolly old man with fluffy white hair and rosy-red cheeks who brings gifts to children around the world on the night of Christmas Eve.

Few children will be aware of the origins of Santa Claus, however, and why he brings them a sleigh-full of toys.

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So where did it all begin? Who is Santa and has he always worn a bright red suit? Let’s find out.

Santa Claus originated from the traditional stories of Saint Nicholas
Santa Claus originated from the traditional stories of Saint Nicholas

Who was Saint Nicholas and what did he do?

Santa Claus has evolved from the traditional tale of Saint Nicholas, a Greek monk who spent his life helping the poor, vulnerable and sick.

One of his most famous acts of kindness was when he saved three sisters from a life of slavery and prostitution by paying a dowry - usually paid by a groom to the father of the bride in some religions - to their father in order to prevent them being sold, so they could marry respectful men.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children and is the most popular and celebrated saint in Europe, especially in Holland.

When did Saint Nicholas become the face of Christmas?

In the late 18th century, Dutch families in Manhattan gathered to honour him on the anniversary of his death - 6 December.

They nicknamed him Sinter Klaas from the translation of Saint Nicholas - Sint Nikolass.

‘Santa Claus’ was later adopted by newspapers in America to advertise Christmas and in the 1890s, the Salvation Army began dressing unemployed men as Santa Clause - though at this point dressed in a green robe and boots - and sent them out to collect donations on the streets across America.

When did Santa Claus become the jolly man we know today?

Santa as we have come to know him can be attributed to generations of stories, poems and more recently, television.

The first mention of a well-fed old man riding on a sleigh pulled by reindeer is thanks to the 1922 poem ‘A visit from Saint Nicholas’, better known as ‘Twas the night before Christmas’, because of its first line.

Poet, Clement Clarke Moore, refers to a visit from a ‘right jolly old elf’, riding on a “miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,” which he knew “must be St. Nick”.

His description of Saint Nicholas has helped shape the icon he has become today, as the poem goes:

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard on 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 laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

The poem continues by mentioning how he slid down the chimney, a pipe between his teeth.

Why does Santa wear red?

The red suit was first mentioned in 1881 when Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, illustrated the poem and brought Santa to life.

His drawing included all the features from Clement-Moore’s description but also showed Santa in a bright red suit and carrying a black sack of toys.

In 1931, fizzy drink’s company Coca-Cola introduced a red Santa to their magazine advert (before the famous red truck appeared on our television screens) and this is widely thought to have been the first sighting of a red-suited St Nick.

However, Haddon Sundblom, the artist who created the original ad for Coca-Cola was allegedly inspired by the work of Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast.