(We’re repeating this post for Christmas Day. It originally ran on Dec. 24, 2012.)
Q: Santa Claus is male, so why isn’t he Saint instead of Santa? Does he have a gender issue?
A: In English the name of a canonized person, whether a man or a woman, is traditionally prefixed by the word “Saint” or its abbreviation.
Although a female saint has occasionally been called a “santa” in English, the Oxford English Dictionary describes this usage as obsolete.
The OED’s only written example is from The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry, a 15th-century translation of a French guide to court etiquette:
“And for-yete not to praie to the blessed virgine Marie, that day and night praieth for us, and to recomaunde you to the seintes and santas.” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)
So why is Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas referred to as “Santa Claus”?
The OED says the usage originated in the US in the 18th century. Americans adopted it from the dialectal Dutch term Sante Klaas.
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the dialectal term is derived from the Middle Dutch Sinter (Ni)klaas. In Modern Dutch, the short form of “Saint Nicholas” is Sinterklaas.
Chambers explains that Saint Nicholas “owes his position as Santa Claus to the legend that he provided three impoverished girls with dowries by throwing three purses of gold in their open window.”
“From this legend is said to derive the custom of placing gifts in the stockings of children on Saint Nicholas’ Eve (the night of December 6) and attributing the gifts to Santa Claus.”
In the US and some other countries, Chambers notes, the custom “has been transferred to Christmas Eve.”
We enjoyed reading this definition of “Santa Claus” in the OED:
“In nursery language, the name of an imaginary personage, who is supposed, in the night before Christmas day, to bring presents for children, a stocking being hung up to receive his gifts. Also, a person wearing a red cloak or suit and a white beard, to simulate the supposed Santa Claus to children, esp. in shops or on shopping streets.”
That pretty much sums it up. And here are the OED’s earliest two published references for the usage:
Dec. 26, 1773: “Last Monday the Anniversary of St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. A Claus, was celebrated at Protestant-Hall.” (From the New York Gazette.)
Jan. 25, 1808: “The noted St. Nicholas, vulgarly called Santaclaus—of all the saints in the kalendar the most venerated by true hollanders, and their unsophisticated descendants.” (From the satirical periodical Salmagundi.)
Although the earliest citations in the OED are from American sources, the last three are from British publications. The latest is from a Dec. 24, 1977, issue of the Times of London:
“Santa must have been updated over the years. Presumably girls hang out their tights now, instead of a solitary stocking.”