The History of the American Santa Claus
Santa Claus is iconic when people think about Christmas. In the eyes of children, he is a gift-bringer that knows if they have been naughty or nice throughout the year. To some he represents all that is traditional with the holiday, while still others look at ol’Saint Nick as the epitome of commercialism. Who was Santa Claus? Was he a real person or some legendary figure conjured up to keep our children in line? Let us examine where the story comes from and how he has come to be the red trimmed icon of Christmas today.
The original Santa Claus appears to be a wealthy man to come out of what is now modern-day Turkey. A monk, by the name of Nicholas (also known as the Bishop of Myra), was born in Patera, on the Lycian coast, around 280A.D. He was admired for his piety and kindness, giving away all of his worldly wealth and helping the poor and sick around his homeland. During his life, he was persecuted by the Romans, under Emperor Diocletian, and attended the Council of Nicaea – a meeting that would declare the divinity of Jesus Christ and unify Christianity. He died at a young age from epidemic, but not before his name was spread throughout the world. The Vikings had a cathedral dedicated to him in Greenland, Christopher Columbus created the city of St. Nicholas in Haiti, and early Spanish settlers built the city of St. Nicholas – now known as Jacksonville.
In America, during the 1700s, Dutch families in New York, celebrated the death of Saint Nicholas (or “Sintar Klaas”, as they called him). Woodcuttings showed Saint Nicholas with images of stockings filled with presents and fruit in the background. The author, Washington Irving, included Sintar Klaas as the patron saint of New York in his, “History of New York”. At this time, he was shown as a “rascal” with blue tri-corner hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings. The celebrations to Saint Nicholas, at this time, was not on the familiar December 25th date that we know of today. It was celebrated on the day of his death, December 7th.
As people immigrated to the United States, they brought their own renditions of Saint Nicholas to our lands. Christkind (or Kris Kringle) was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children during the winter season. However, Christkind, was an angelic partner to Saint Nicholas, not the actual saint, who worked with him on his holiday missions. From Scandinavia, we have the legend of Jultomten – an squat elf – who delivered toys and goodies to well-behaved children on his sled pulled by goats. From England, we have Father Christmas who filled stockings with toys if they were placed over the fireplace and the French, Pere Noel, would fill up shoes with goodies. In Russia, “Santa” is actually a woman, named Babouschka, who misled the three wise men on their journey to Bethlehem. Afterwards, she felt so upset with her betrayal, she now gives gifts to good children on January 5th in the hopes that the baby Jesus will forgive her.
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” Moore’s poem, which he was initially hesitant to publish due to the frivolous nature of its subject, is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf” with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head! Although some of Moore’s imagery was probably borrowed from other sources, his poem helped to popularize the now-familiar idea of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve—in “a miniature sleigh” led by eight flying reindeer, whom he also named—leaving presents for deserving children. “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” created a new and immediately popular American icon. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.
In the 1930’s, the Coca-Cola Company hired artist Haddon Sundblom to depict Santa Claus in their winter advertising. The image he created, a mish-mash of popular stories is the image we have today of Santa Claus. While Coca-Cola was the most successful at using this strategy, they were not the first to use Santa to sell their beverages. Other early uses of Santa Claus included the Salvation Army’s use of the iconic figure to represent the spirit of giving.