Santa Claus, the famous old man with a long white beard, cherry red nose, and eight reindeer that carry his sleigh through the night sky on Christmas Eve has not always been imagined in this light. Santa Claus is known all across the whole world where he has touched the hearts of many young children who wait all year to hear the footsteps of reindeer on their roof accompanied by the jolly big man who shuffles down the chimney leaving a banquet of gifts. This modern Santa in his red coat and black boots that lives in the North Pole is a product of hundreds of years of various other gift givers. The origins of Santa date back to 280 A.D. where he started off as a Catholic Saint.
In 280 A.D. there was a man named Nicholas who was known for his charitable acts and his compassion towards children. In one of the many stories told about him he saves three young girls from being sold into prostitution by anonymously throwing three bags of gold coins through their window. In another story he resurrects three murder boys and helps them escape. These stories are the stepping stones that led to him being called the patron saint of young brides, woman and of children. After his death, a day of remembrance and celebration was established in his memory, this day is December 6th. Towards the end of his life St. Nicholas faced persecution for his faith, this later became an important factor in the journey of how Santa Claus came to be.
The protestant revolution started in 1517 to 1648. During this time a new church emerged and broke away from the central church, the Catholic church. With this great divide and cultural change in Europe there were pushing interests in not celebrating St. Nicholas's feast day, many did this. However, soon many realized that they needed to compensate for the role St. Nicholas previously played. They did this by changing the day of celebration to the 25th of December, the proposed birthday of Jesus. With changing the date, they were now able to celebrate Christmas without having to be affiliated with the Catholic church. In this time, the appearance of St. Nicholas was altered from his robes to more common clothing. In Germanic countries he was Sinterklaas. In this version, he had a staff, rode above rooftops on a white horse, and had helpers who would listen through the chimneys to see if the children were behaving. These features of Sinterklaas also link him to the Norse god Odin which many Germanic countries celebrated before christianity (“A Pictorial History of Santa Claus”). In England another important character that influenced the appearance of the modern Santa was Father Christmas also known as Lord Christmas. He was also described as having a long white beard and being the spirit of Christmas. In contrast to Sinterklaas Father Christmas was not affiliated with children or gift bringing. Another character in which he took a trait from was the roman god Saturn who had magical flight (Handwerk). These gift givers and non gift giver such as Father Christmas all helped sculpt the image of Santa today. They laid down the characteristics of flight, having a white beard, having help, having an animal to ride or pull him, and most of all they moved the idea of Santa further away from being a solely Catholic character. In multiple different aspects during this stage Santa lost his religious affiliation with the Catholic saint Nicholas.
With Santa Claus being moved further from a Catholic religious affiliation the influence of songs and poems started to heavily shape his character. In Germanic countries spins offs of Nicholas were Ru-klaus, Aschenkla, and Pelznickel which were all threanting figures who would whip or kidnap disobedient children. However, in England the atmosphere around Christmas was not filled with scary magical characters but with wine and drunken rowdiness, "'It was celebrated as a kind of outdoor, alcohol-fueled, rowdy community blowout..." (Bowler). There was also no particular gift bringer (Handwerk). Amidst the celebration of Christmas followed by copious amounts of alcohol consumption a man named Washington Irving wrote a book in 1809, “Knickerbocker's History of New York”, which spurred on the communal effort to reshape how Christmas was celebrated in England. In this book Washington is the first to portray Santa as a “...pipe-smoking Nicholas soaring over the rooftops in a flying wagon, delivering presents to good girls and boys and switches to bad ones.” (Handwerk). Another famous written work that contributed to reshaping Santa and Christmas was the poem “The Children's Friend” which was published in 1821 and written by Arthur J. Stansbury. One of the largest contributing factors this poem offers to the evolution of Santa is the illustration. The illustration is one of the first that cements the idea of Santa having a sled pulled by a reindeer along with a suit. This illustration played a crucial part in laying part of the foundation for other artists and authors to base their work upon. One of the last important works that sculpted the appearance of Santa was the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” written in 1822 by Clement Moore. (Handwerk) This poem introduced the idea of Santa's sleigh being pulled by eight reindeer and reinstated the idea of Santa being a jolly plump old man. Even with all of these poems and illustration still much was left to imagination. Even until the 19th century Santa appeared in a variety of suits ranging in colors even though Stansbury's illustration of him in a red suit was popular in Europe. Santa was introduced to America in December of 1773 by a New York newspaper highlighting the Dutch celebrating St. Nicholas' feast day. (“Santa Claus”) With many versions of Santa being created in Europe he was also undergoing a transformation in America.
Amongst those who most famously created Santa's' appearance is Thomas Nast a cartoon artist. Thomas Nast is famous for his depictions of Santa and less known for being the creator of the republican elephant and democratic donkey. Thomas helped sculpt Santa into having a large plump belly, a wooden pipe, a long white beard, and a friendly demeanor. With Thomas Nast's depiction of Santa companies such as Salvation Army started to learn just how profitable the face of Santa could be. In the 1890's, the first Santa working for the Salvation Army stood outside ringing a bell for donations. After the first year, the Salvation Army recognized how profitable using Santa was for grabbing attention from the public and representing their company in a friendly manner. Another pivotal moment in integrating Santa further into American society was in 1841 when the first Santa came to a mall in Pennsylvania. It quickly became apparent that mall Santas were a success when loads of children flocked to the local mall waiting to see Santa in real life. With increased publicity around Santa a man named Haddon Sundblom reinstated the ideas of Santa and cemented them in the minds of Americans. Haddon was the illustrator for Coca-Cola for 33 years depicting Santa in various situations with a coke in his hand (Taylor).
With the general American public being exposed to Santa through one of the most famous beverage companies others started to understand how Santa could be used for marketing. With this realization Santa jumped out of Coca-Cola ads and into other forms of advertising. With Santa penetrating commercials, malls and even charitable companies many have taken a step back and viewed the progression of Santa Claus from St. Nicholas to have gone to far. In certain European countries there are movements to preserve the native gift givers. In the Czech Republic they are trying to protect one culturally native Christmas spirit called Ježíšek, in the Netherlands they are trying to protect Sinterklaas, and finally in Austria they are trying to conserve Krampus and St. Nicholas (Hörterer).
Santa has been a presence in the world since 280 A.D. Many of his features are a product of the environments in which he was touched and moulded. Santa Claus has gone through many changes to his appearance, through all of his retouches he has kept one similar trait. He still touches the hearts of children. With such changes made to Santa in over a 1,000 years it is still yet to be seen how other authors and illustrators will envision him.
...(download the rest of the essay above)