The History of Santa Claus

The Santa Claus HistoryThe History of Santa Claus

The history of Santa Claus criss-crosses the continents.  Almost all cultures can relate to this kindly man in a red suit who gives children presents.  His universal appeal is reflected in his many names, Chris Kringle, Father Christmas, Pere Noel and of course always there in the background is St Nicholas.

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Introduction to the History of Santa Claus

The history of Santa Claus could also double as a marketing text book.  Whilst many devout Christians rail against the commercial excesses of Christmas, they should remember Christ's proclamation: 'Let he who is without sin should cast the first stone', and look to the founders of their own churches who absorbed mid-winter pagan festivals such as Saturnalia and Mithras into Christmas, and thus encouraged people to convert to Christianity.

Yet there is a huge gulf between figures from the Saturnalia of ancient Rome and the Santa Claus we see in 21st century New York or London.  Because of the rich and diverse legends surrounding Santa Claus no one society can convincingly claim that they conceived this jolly man in red.  It seems that by medieval Europe, most societies independently felt the need to create a tradition of present giving, and each culture developed its own folk lore surrounding the present giver.

The Roman Saturnalia Festival

Saturnalia was a popular Roman festival, which started on 17th of December lasted for about a week.  One feature of Saturnalia was that slaves dressed-up and masters dressed-down as surfs.  Furthermore it is recorded that Saturnalia was a festival with lots of eating and drinking - no change there when it became Christmas.  Interestingly, it was also the custom to exchange presents at this festival.

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The First Christmas

While I would not wish to diminish the importance and significance of Christ's birthday, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that 'Christmas' was not celebrated within living memory of Christ's death.  Early Christians must have worked out that if Christ was conceived at the annunciation (March 25th), then his birthday would have been around 25th December.  However, it was not until hundreds of years later when smart missionaries wanted a killer argument to convert people from paganism that they highlighted Christ's birthday, and annexed the mid-winter pagan festivals into Christmas.

Commercialisation of Christmas

From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.

Whitehorn, Katharine

St Nicholas - The First Santa Claus?St Nicholas Santa Claus History

Was the first Santa Claus in history Russian, or Scandinavian?  The answer is neither; the ancestor all those jolly men bearing sack-fulls of presents was St Nicholas, who was born in Myra in Turkey probably and died in 347 AD.  The significance of the story of St Nicholas is that it establishes a named figure as the gift giver.  He died on the 6th of December, and this presents us with a feast day at the very start of the winter festival season.

St Nicolas' legend itself is that a poor man had three daughters, none of whom could marry because their father had no money for a dowry.  In the bleak mid-winter the eldest daughter offered to sell herself in to slavery so that her two sisters could have a dowry get married, and thus have a good life.  Folklore chronicles describe how St Nicholas heard of this sad tale and came to the family's rescue.  In an act of charity he dropped gold coins down their chimney; as luck would have it the daughters were drying their stockings over the dying fire when the three bags of gold coins landed in a pair of stockings.  And there you have the legend of the present giver in December and children hanging up stockings.

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Washington Irvine

During the 16th century successive waves of reformists tried, but failed, to stamp out the gift-bearing traditions of St Nicholas.  Let us now fast forward to 1809, where Washington Irvine took an interest in the Dutch roots of New York and his research produced the 'Knickerbocker's History of New York'.  Amongst the topics in his wide-ranging treatise of the early American pilgrims Irvine writes:History of Santa Claus

"The good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children".

Historians of Santa Claus believe that this was the seed from which the American version of Santa Claus germinated.  (Mis) pronunciations resulting in new words is a common theme of the Americanization of English, and once you hear it, you realise how a Dutchman in New Amsterdam saying 'Sinter Klaas' (St Nicholas) could become Sainta ...glass, then morph into New Yorker talking about 'Santa Claus'.

By 1921 Sante Claus had arrived in America complete with sleigh and reindeer, see right illustration from a contemporary book.

The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before Christmas (A Visit from St Nicholas)

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .

Another critical item in the evolution of Santa Clause was the poem originally called, 'A Visit from St Nicholas'.  It was written in about 1809 by Henry Livingston or Clement Clarke Moore, depending on which historian you believe.

However, the poem was not widely known until 1823 when it was published as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas', whereupon it became a huge and enduring hit.

Thomas Nast - The Face of Santa Claus

In 1863 although the terrible American civil war was at its height, at Christmas time Harper's Weekly commissioned Thomas Nast to sketch a picture of Santa Claus with the Union troops.  You can see him distributing presents to soldiers, and in there in the background are his trusty reindeer, see picture.Thomas Nast Santa Claus

Over the next 20 years Nast went on to sketch Santa Claus in a variety of poses, and thus provide us with an image of the Christmas present giver.  Many of his biographers comment on how you can see a likeness of Thomas Nast in his pictures of Santa Claus.

 

Yes There Is A Santa Claus

If you want the great gift giver
To come on his sleigh and deliver
Then remember this simple rhyme
And recall it at Christmas time
"If in Santa you do not believe
Christmas gifts you will not receive"

The History of Santa Claus' Red Coat

In a recent survey 76% of Americans believed that Coca-Cola was responsible for creating Santa's red coat.  However, this is an urban myth.

Haddon Sundblom did indeed create an iconic Santa Claus for Coca-Cola.  Each Christmas from 1931 to the 1960s Sundblom created his distinctive version of Santa.  The marketing logic was simple, Coca-Cola wanted to make sure that it had its share of the lucrative Christmas soft drinks market.  The sub-plot in the history of Santa Claus is that the image of this jovial present-giving figure that we associate with Christmas was created by Coca-Cola.

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Haddon Sundblom Coca Cola Santa

The Santa Claus HistoryCoca-Cola Urban Myth

It is interesting to listen to Coca-Cola's own position on the urban myth that they created Santa's red ensemble.  The company concede that there were Santas in red suits at least 30 years before Sunblom's first picture.  However, Coca-Cola are happy to ride on the coat-tails of the myth, and do publicise their part in developing our image of Santa always wearing a red suit. 

Research on the history of Santa Claus's red coat show that in the late 19th century Santa Claus is depicted in a heavy brown coat, just the job for riding around on a cold winter night. The true origin of Santa in a red coat probably comes from primitive color printing where the artist's rough hunting brown coat, became dark red owing to the limited range of colours available to the printing process.

Black Peter - Zwarte PietBlack Peter

As mentioned earlier, there is no neat single linear evolutionary path leading to the modern day Santa Claus figure.  What seems to have happened is that northern European communities, with their long dark winters, have independently created the legend of a present giving figure who emerges near the winter solstice.

The Dutch saga of Black Peter highlights an aspect of Christmas presents that is now overlooked, namely that only good children get a visit from Santa Claus.  Bad children get a visit from Black Peter or Krampus as they call him in Austria, Bavaria and other central European countries.  While what Black Peter does varies from country to country, it is never pleasant, often involves a beating, and was only doled out to children who had been consistently naughty throughout the year.

A Female Santa Claus?

Throughout Santa Claus history women have played almost no part in this present giving role.  It's true there have been a few Mother Christmases but feminism has not really impinged on this job.  To be frank Will and Guy would be happy to keep it this way.

To digress, I would like to swim against the tide of political correctness and suggest that certain responsibilities such as Santa Claus should be considered male preserves, just as certain roles are more suited to women.

A trivial example of a chivalrous male role is that Will and Guy like to open doors for ladies (and other women).  On a personal level, Guy is also very happy that in his family women still rule in the kitchen.

Summary of Santa Claus History

Early Christians absorbed pagan festivals in order to make their new religion a better prospect for missionaries to covert non-believers.  Christmas became established as THE mid-winter festival.  The legend of St Nicholas established a named figure as present giver.  America introduced the name Santa Claus, although other countries still maintain their own names for this figure, for example Pere Noel or Kris Cringle.  Despite conventional wisdom, Coca-Cola did not invent Santa's red coat, however their artist Haddon Sundblom created the modern face of Santa, building on Thomas Nast's 19th century drawings.

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Films Made of Santa Claus

Santa Claus (1959) Directed by René Cardona.

Santa Claus (1985) Starring Dudley Moore.

Here are the more recent Santa Clause 1, 2 and 3 trilogy.

  • The Santa Clause (1994)
  • The Santa Clause 2: The Mrs. Clause (2002)
  • The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006)

Santa Claws (1996) is a poor film, one to avoid.

Santa Banned from Markets in Austria and GermanyChristmas Tree Stories

The move in Vienna has been followed by Christmas markets across Austria and Germany where St Nicholas is the traditional bearer of Christmas gifts. Bettina Schade, from the Frankfurter Nicholas Initiative in Germany commented, 'We object to the material things, the hectic rush to buy gifts, and the ubiquity of the bearded man in the red suit that are taking away from the core meaning of Christmas.

A Vienna city hall spokesman added that Santa Claus is an English language creation, people who want to see him should go to America where I am sure Coca Cola will be happy to oblige. 'The Christian origins of Christmas, like the birth of Jesus, have receded into the background. It's becoming more and more a festival that is reduced to simply worldly gifts and commerce.'

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