It’s almost impossible to imagine the Christmas season without the presence of its most recognizable icon, Santa Claus. Santa is the very embodiment of Christmas, and just the mention of his name is enough to incite joy and wonderment in children. Jaded adults on the other hand observe Santa with a more cynical eye and use his likeness to market everything from soda to automobiles.
Santa Claus’s long transformation into the rotund, jolly fellow in the red suit so beloved today has been a long one. It began in the cold and dark regions of northern Europe where the god Odin/Wodan was worshiped, who many believe was the original inspiration for Santa Claus. Odin, the god of wisdom and magic, was an old man of great height with a long white beard. He traveled through the air on his eight-legged white horse carrying his spear. Not quite eight tiny reindeer, but you get the idea.
The real life inspiration for Santa Claus would be St. Nicholas, who was born around the year 280 A.D. near Myra in what is now Turkey. Nicholas was a monk renowned for his gentleness, kindness and holiness, and legend has it he gave away all his possessions so he could travel to attend to needy and sick. One of the most widely told stories about St. Nicholas is that is saved three sisters from being sold into prostitution — by their own father — by providing a dowry for all three so they could be wed.
Over the centuries, the popularity of St. Nicholas steadily grew. His feast day is December 6th, the anniversary of his death, which was considered an auspicious day to get married or make a large purchase. By the time of the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most beloved saint in all of Europe. Even after the Reformation swept through the continent and changed the religious landscape forever, St. Nicholas managed to remain relatively unscathed, even after the veneration of saints was actively discouraged by reformers. Well, everywhere but England, where the ancient religious folk traditions were altered more drastically than on the continent, leading to more secular Christmas celebrations under the Puritans.
St. Nicholas made the trek to the New World with the very first settlers. In Greenland, the Vikings built a cathedral in honor of him. Columbus dedicated a Haitian port to the saint during his very first voyage on December 6, 1492. The first colonists, primarily consisting of Protestants and Puritans, Did not bring St. Nicholas along for the ride when they made their trek to North America, although many believe that the Dutch let St. Nick hitch along with them to New Amsterdam.
By the time the 19th century rolled around it became clear that the Christmas holiday was in dire need of an overhaul. No matter how noble their intentions, once the Puritans and those of their ilk had stripped the holiday of its holy associations, Christmas had become an excuse for drunken excess and bad behavior — nothing like the cozy-family-drinking-cocoa-around-the-fire images we have today. During the first half of the 1800’s, December 25 was considered an average work day without any religious significance, and any employee who claimed otherwise was treading on thin ice and had no gospel passages to back up their claim. So Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t all that out of line not wanting to give that slacker Bob Cratchitt the day off after all.
At the same time, child-rearing techniques were undergoing radical change as well. Children were seen as being in need of more attention, education and nurturing than was previously believed necessary and many people’s priorities turned towards their homes and their families. Christmas and St. Nicholas also underwent a metamorphosis, becoming kinder and gentler to fit the new mood of the new times.
During the year 1821, St Nicholas became “Sante Clause,” who flew in from the north in a sleigh led by a (what else?) flying reindeer. Sante Clause rewards the good behavior of little children and punishes the bad, thus gifting parents an all-purpose threat they can start using as early as Halloween. This is when the change from Saint to Santa becomes obvious — Sante Clause pointedly makes his debut on December 24th.
Probably the most famous poem written about Santa Claus is “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Written in 1823 by Clement Clark Moore, this poem has become an enduring American classic that has come to define how Americans think of Santa Claus. It played a huge role in fostering the cozy domestication so desirable at the time.
Thomas Nast was one of the many artists happy to contribute to the not-so-secret conspiracy to change St. Nick from a rather trim somber bishop to a portly, jolly fellow named Santa. During the height of the Civil War, Nast completed a group of drawings for “Harper’s Weekly” depicting Santa with a rounded belly, long, white beard and a clay pipe.
Nast also made it abundantly clear that Santa supported the Union cause, which President Lincoln himself believed shook the Confederate soldiers so much it contributed to the Union’s success. After all, if even Santa was against them morale would be understandably low.
In time, Protestant churches began to reconsider their hard-line stance against Christmas observances. By the middle of the 19th century, a number of these denominations had discovered that many of the “props” of the Christmas season, such a tree, presents, and yes, Santa, greatly add to a congregation’s attendance. This new, secular Santa Claus ironically turned out to be the ideal vehicle to get people back into the churches.
At that point, when it came to portraying Santa style-wise it was pretty much anything goes. But by the end of the roaring ’20s, the Santa that we know and love today — red suit trimmed out with white fur — had become the standard thanks to the work of illustrators like Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth. When the Coca-Cola Company began a 35-year run of ads starring Santa Claus in 1931, it further solidified the iconic red suit image, along with establishing Santa’s selling power. This Santa was plastered on billboards and magazines, coaxing you to consider Coke your answer to “a thirst for all seasons,” ushering in the era of Capitalist Claus.
By the time the 1950s rolled around, the American version of Santa Claus had more endorsement deals than an NFL quarterback. This level of commercial success inevitably led to Santa’s image being broadcast around the globe competing with the stately St. Nicholas, who still managed to hold his own in his homeland of Europe.
It could be said the American version of Santa Claus is much like the country of his origin — overfed, a bit garish, and too apt to pander to the wants of those who already have too much. But underneath the festive red suit, perhaps the kind, pious bishop St. Nicholas is still lurking, ensuring the Christmas season never loses its nobler aspects, or its connection to a less commercialized past.