The Real Santa Claus Story

“Don’t tell the kids, but we’ve got Santa Claus all wrong. Countless Christmas songs tell us that Santa is basically the Judge Judy of juveniles. He decides who’s been naughty or nice, and doles out presents or punishments accordingly. But historians say Kris Kringle was originally created to keep adults, not children, off the naughty list. Being crafty codgers, we ducked Santa’s surveillance, turning the spotlight on kids and dramatically changing Christmas celebrations.” By D.  Burke, CNN

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas is the character that Santa Claus is based on

Excerpt: The real story behind Santa Claus, By Daniel Burke, CNN Editor

“How did we achieve this very important historical victory? Picture this: It’s the early 1800s, and America’s Christian leaders — most of whom were Protestant Reformation-types — had banned religious celebrations of Christmas as unscriptural and paganish.

But people still wanted to party. Because, why not? It was midwinter, the crops were harvested and sailors were waiting for better weather to disembark. So, on December 25, working-class stiffs got fall-down drunk and stumbled around cities looking for stuff to loot. A bunch of blue-blood New Yorkers decided all this fun must stop.

Today we have Santas for everyone.

‘They wanted to domesticate Christmas, bring it indoors, and focus it on children,’ says Gerry Bowler, author of ‘Santa Claus: A History,’ and professor of history at the University of Manitoba in Canada. When the Dutch came to the New World in the 1600s, they brought a fellow from folklore named Sinterklaas with them, Bowler says. Sinterklaas, who wore a red bishop’s miter and a snowy white beard, was based on St. Nicholas, who lived in modern-day Turkey.

Tex-Mex Santa in his zoot suit–Toledo Blade

According to one medieval legend, Nicholas punched a heretic in the nose at the Council of Nicea — Alas, the Nick at Nicea rumor is not true, said English. But people seem to love the story, which pops up like poinsettias on the Internet this time of year.  Thankfully, St. Nicholas, was known for more than brawling. He also had a reputation for giving gifts and protecting children.

These deeds, along with his everyman persona, (he wasn’t a martyr or hermit like so many other model Christians of the time), made Nicholas the greatest male saint of the Middle Ages, said Bowler. One measure of his popularity is the looong list of people, places, churches and Christian groups that list St. Nick as their patronBowler, Santa’s biographer, says that St. Nick’s feast day, December 6, (the day he supposedly died) was celebrated across Europe for hundreds of years, often by giving gifts to children…As they sought to make Christmas more family friendly, the Saint Nicholas Society found the perfect front man in their namesake, who, after all, was known for being nice to children.

Chief Thomas Darder, Jr., Native American Santa in Dyulake, Louisiana,

It was a genius move. The real goal was getting drunks off the street, remember? Now they could do that by turning Christmas into a family event when children — who had it pretty rough back then — would receive gifts for good behavior.

Drawing on the Dutch legends about Sinterklaas, the American author Washington Irving wrote a series of sketches featuring St. Nicholas soaring high above New York houses, smoking a pipe and delivering presents to well-behaved children…

In some early depictions, Santa Claus looks like an overgrown elf; in others, he looks kind of scary, as American artists merged St. Nicholas with European traditions such as the German Krampus, who punishes bad children.

By the early 1900s, Bowler says, Santa became standardized as the white-bearded, red-suited, twinkle-eyed benevolent grandfather that we all know and love.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article. 

II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Many Christian leaders banned  celebrations of Christmas.
  2. Sailors were waiting for better weather to disembark.
  3. A bunch of blue-blood New Yorkers decided all this fun must stop.
  4. When the Dutch came to the New World in the 1600s, they brought a fellow from folklore named Sinterklaas.
  5. According to one medieval legend, Nicholas punched a heretic in the nose.
  6. St. Nicholas, was known for more than brawling.
  7. The second story is a bit macabre.
  8. Long ago children  and many adults — really had something to pout about.
  9. Santa is  a benevolent grandfather that we all know and love.
  10. Merchants were pitching products as soon as possible.

Reading Comprehension


Directions: The following  paragraphs are from the article. Choose the correct word for each blank space from the word list  or make up your own words.

But,___in the 1500s, the Protestant___swept ___the cult of Christian saints, denouncing them as ___and idolatrous.___ too, went pretty much by the ___or much of Protestant Europe during this time.

Some___, though, such as the Netherlands, kept alive___ associated with Sinterklaas. And it was these ___that 19th century New Yorkers wanted to revive.

WORD LIST:  countries, wayside ,unbiblical Christmas, away, Reformation, beginning, traditions, customs,

Grammar Focus

Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

“Merchants seized/sized on this guy write/right away,” Bowler says. “They immediately saw the possibility/possible that this person/ personification could be useful in their selling.” In other words, Santa was pitching products almost as soon as he hitched up his sled/sleigh.

III. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Discussion for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Place students in groups Have each group think of three things they would like “Santa” to bring them for Christmas. Groups share questions as a class.

Group Activity

Directions: Have groups read the following article and choose one of the organizations  to donate either money or gifts for children.

 9 Ways To Donate A Gift To A Child In Need This Holiday Season By Emily McCombs The Huffington Post

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year… unless it’s not. For many children and their parents, this time of year may be depressing, stressful or simply go by unnoticed due to more pressing problems. 

Below are 9 ways to donate a Christmas present to a child who might not otherwise get one, and to provide a moment of happiness to a child undergoing a stressful situation, whether it’s poverty, illness or a natural disaster.  

Please remember that there are many vulnerable communities that do not have national organizations dedicated to them, but that still need donations this holiday season. Where possible, find organizations like shelters, foster agencies and hospitals in your area ― they probably have their own lists of needs.” 

Shoebox distribution in Cambodia


Category: Culture