(CNN) — Don’t tell the kids, but we’re totally wrong about Santa Claus.
Countless Christmas songs tell us that Santa is basically the juvenile judge. He decides who was good or bad and doles out gifts or punishments accordingly.
However, historians say that Santa was originally created to prevent Adults, not the children, they will behave well. As sly old men that we are, we outwitted Santa’s watch, put kids in the spotlight, and turned Christmas celebrations upside down.
How did we achieve this important historic victory?
Imagine that it is the beginning of the 19th century and the Christian leaders of the United States (who were mostly Reformation Protestants) had prohibited the religious celebrations of the Christmas for considering them unbiblical and pagan.
However, people still wanted to party. Why not? It was the middle of winter, the crops had already been harvested, and the sailors were waiting for the weather to improve before disembarking.
So on December 25, bored workers would get drunk and stumble around the cities, looking for something to loot.
imagine the black friday, Spring Break and New Year’s Eve and then make them collide like two sumo wrestlers drowning in sake. This was Christmas at the beginning of the 19th century.
A bunch of blue-blooded New Yorkers decided that all this fun had to stop.
“They wanted to tame Christmas, bring it indoors and focus it on children,” says Gerry Bowler, author of the book Santa Claus: A Story (a story about Santa Claus) and Professor of History at the University of Manitoba, in Canada.
These grinch, who created the St. Nicholas Society of New York, would change the world with two short poems. Yes, poems.
But let’s back up a bit.
When the Dutch arrived in the New World in the 17th century, they brought with them a traditional character called sinterklaasBowler explains.
sinterklaaswho wore a red bishop’s miter and sported a snow-white beard, was based on Saint Nicholas, a third-century Greek who lived in what is now Turkey.
Even though he was a bishop, this Nico was a bit of a badass.
An archaeologist unearthed his bones in 2005 and discovered that Nicholas’s nose was broken, perhaps as a result of persistent persecution of Christians at the time, explained Adam C. English, author of the book. The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus (the saint who would become Santa Claus).
Or was it violence between Christians?
According to a medieval legend, Nicholas struck a heretic at the Council of Nicea, a meeting that took place in 325 and in which the first consensus on Christian doctrine was reached. In the first icons of Nicholas, he is represented without the bishop’s garments, a subtle indication that he had been dismissed, perhaps for fighting with his bare hands.
Alas, the rumor of Nico in Nicaea is not true, says English. But it seems that people love the story that is everywhere at this time of year, like Christmas Eve.
Fortunately, Saint Nicholas was not only famous for his riots. He was also famous for giving gifts and protecting children.
The first of these qualities emerges from a story about a poor man who had three young daughters. Since he did not have a dowry to offer suitors, the man was worried that his daughters would end up prostituting themselves. Legend has it that Nicolás put three bags of gold through a window of the man’s house, with which he saved the women from ending up on the streets.
The second story is a bit macabre: while staying at an inn, Nicholas discovered three dismembered children in some brine barrels. He rebuilt and revived the children and punished the guilty innkeeper.
These feats, coupled with his common appearance (he was not a martyr or hermit like other exemplary Christians of the day), made Nicholas the foremost saint of the Middle Ages, Bowler explains. His popularity can be measured by the long list of people, places, churches, and Christian groups that consider Saint Nicholas his patron saint.
Bowler, Santa’s biographer, says that the feast of Saint Nicholas, on December 6 (the day he supposedly died), was celebrated throughout Europe for several centuries and gifts were often given to children.
But in the early 16th century, the Protestant Reformation swept away Christian saints and denounced them as unbiblical and idolatrous. Christmas was also relegated to much of Protestant Europe at the time.
But in some countries, such as the Netherlands, traditions related to sinterklaas. These customs were the ones that 19th century New Yorkers wanted to revive.
As they searched for a way to make Christmas more family-friendly, the St. Nicholas Society found the perfect man to represent their namesake and who, after all, was famous for being kind to children.
It was a great maneuver. The real goal was to get drunks off the streets, remember? Now they could make Christmas a family event where children, who had a very difficult life back then, received gifts for being good.
But New Yorkers needed more than good cheer to turn Christmas around. They needed stories.
Inspired by the Dutch legends of sinterklaasthe American writer Washington Irving wrote a series of sketches in which he represented Saint Nicholas flying over the houses of New York, smoking a pipe and leaving gifts for well-behaved children.
A decade or so later, an anonymous poem titled The Children’s Friend (the children’s friend) introduced a magical character named santeclaus who drove a reindeer sleigh full ofrewards and filled the obedient children’s socks with gifts.
From that, an Episcopalian scholar named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his offspring, titled A Visit From St. Nicholas (The visit of Saint Nicholas). Today it is better known as The Night Before Christmas (Christma’s eve).
What was odd, for a seminary professor, was that Moore stripped Saint Nicholas of all purpose in the poem. Nicolás wears a fur suit, goes down the chimneys and leaves gifts for the good children. But he doesn’t say anything about “the reason for the season,” as today’s Christmas champions say.
Still, Moore’s story about St. Nicholas went viral, spreading across the Northeast faster than a reindeer on Ritalin.
In some early descriptions, Santa Claus looks like an overdeveloped elf; in others, he looks a bit spooky as American artists combined Saint Nicholas with traditional European characters such as the Krampus from Germany, who punishes bad children.
Bowler says that by the early 1800s, Santa had become standardized: becoming the benevolent, white-bearded, red-suited, twinkling-eyed grandfather we all know and love. And we are not the only ones.
“The merchants immediately took advantage of this character,” Bowler explains. “They immediately saw that this personification could be useful for their sales.” In other words, Santa was selling goods almost as soon as he got on his sleigh.
But before you blame Santa for commercializing Christmas, think about how things were before it came, when children (and many adults) had plenty of reasons to pout.
This article was initially published in 2014.