The chubby red gent squirming down your chimney this evening has come a long way. Santa Claus is an ageless character. An icon of mythical and religious ancestry who has crossed oceans, changed cultures and done more makeovers than Madonna to get his look right.
The scarlet fellow steering the reindeer is the perfect combination of moral virtue, folksy tradition, and breaking and entering.
We know where Santa’s going tonight. But these glimpses of his early career will tell you how far he’s come. The old boy stops at nothing until he gets “his look” just right. So, don’t forget the cookie. He deserves it.
ORIGINAL ST. NICOLAOS
(Approximately A.D. 300)
A good man, though hardly the stuff of Hummel figurines. Born in Turkey, Nicolaos was caught throwing gold bags through the windows of destitute families to keep them from selling their daughters into prostitution. Later he became a bishop and a patron saint of children. But he never saw a chimney.
A Dutch variation on the St. Nicholas legend, Sinter Claas visited children on a white horse and left trinkets in their shoes. Like Odin — a white-bearded woodsman of German tradition, who rode a flying horse and also left candy in children’s footwear — Sinter Claas was more of a folk figure than a religious icon. So when the devout Dutch and Germans set sail for the New World, they jettisoned Sinter Claas and Odin, but somehow found room for …
NEW WORLD ST. NICHOLAS
(19th/early 20th century)
Early drafts on a New World Santa reflected a heavy-handed Puritanism. This rendition of St. Nicholas was a moody bishop as likely to whack children with a cane as give them presents. (“Feelin’ lucky, punk?”) Philadelphia Germans had Belsnickles, masked figures in elaborate disguises who visited children and “either cakes or the whip are bestowed.” But moody, unpredictable characters weren’t popular over the holidays. (We already have them. They’re called “relatives.”) A new kind of Claus was opening in New York …
CLEMENT CLARKE MOORE SANTA
Looking familiar? Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” took real (and imagined) old Dutch traditions (like gifts from folksy elfin figures) and transplanted them to New York City to replace the Big Apple’s traditions of class warfare and drunken burglaries. The poem (which may have been ghost-written) moved the holiday from Dec. 6 to the night before Christmas and defined Santa as a jolly, secular, overweight home invader. He “looked like a peddler” so the poor identified with him. He left presents (instead of taking stuff), so rich people loved him. But most importantly, it targeted the holiday toward children.
THOMAS NAST SANTA
The cartoonist who made Republicans elephants and Democrats donkeys took Santa from an enigmatic elf to a fullsized figure, and portrayed him giving gifts to the Union Army during the Civil War. In subsequent drawings, Nast fleshed out Santa’s details (bigger gut, fluffier beard) and gave him a kind but mischievous air, reminiscent of the Ghost of Christmas Present from Charles Dickens’ (relatively new) story “A Christmas Carol.” But Santa owes his final American Makeover to ...
Santa standardized by product endorsement? How absolutely American! Artist Haddon Sundblom, in a series of Depression-era Life magazine ads, gives us the Santa we know: a jolly, ruddy-cheeked fat man with a fur-trimmed red coat and a snowy white beard, surrounded by toys and adoring children (and a certain caffeinated beverage!). These ads gave Santa Claus a definitive look and established him as the only person, besides Carol Channing, who can wear red fur without being ridiculed.
Sources: Elliot, Jock, “Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to Be,” Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2001; Nissenbaum, Stephen, “The Battle for Christmas,” Knopf, 1996; Wikipedia.