The not so brief history of Santa Claus

Michael Ross Special Contributor
Thomas Nast's most famous illustration, "Merry Old Santa Claus" from the Jan. 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.

Contrary to what many folks believe, Santa Claus as we know him today – that sleigh-riding, gift-giving, rotund, white-bearded guy with a distinctive red suit trimmed with white fur – didn’t always look that way.

The Coca-Cola brand and their illustrator Haddon Sundblom with their Christmas advertising campaigns of the 1930s and 40s featuring Santa were key to popularizing the image most of us think of as Santa, the guy we see in department stores with kids on his lap.

But prior to that, the illustration that accompanies this article “Merry Old Santa Claus" by Thomas Nast, ran on the cover of Harper’s Weekly in the Jan. 1, 1881 and as you can see, is pretty close to what we have today.

Before settling on his famed red garb and jolly, bearded countenance over the centuries, Santa morphed through a variety of different looks. In fact, early images of him are downright Biblical.

After all, the Santa myth largely evolved out of the story of a real saint, who lived in the 1,200s, a kindly, gift-giving Saint Nicholas and who better to kick off our look back at the evolution of Santa Claus than St. Nick himself?

13th Century - The name Santa Claus has its roots in the informal Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas - an abbreviation of Sint Nikolaas.

St. Nicholas was a historic 4th-century Greek saint - from an area now in modern day Turkey - who had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes left out for him. He was also famous for presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become “women of the night.”

Being the patron saint of children St. Nicholas has long been associated with giving gifts to kids, but the parallels to the modern day Santa Claus don’t end there.

In his Dutch form of Sinterklaas he was imagined to carry a staff, ride above the rooftops. No reindeer yet - he rode on a huge white horse.

But he did have mischievous elf-like helpers who listened at chimneys to find out whether children were being naughty or nice. These features all also link him to the legend of Odin, a god who was worshipped among the Germanic peoples in North and Western Europe prior to Christianization.

Although in Europe the feast of St. Nicholas, typically on the 6th December, was very popular throughout the middle ages, but after the reformation in the 16th century the celebration died out in most Protestant countries, apart from Holland where the celebration of Sinterklaas lived on.

15th Century - The earliest English examples of the personification of Christmas are thought to be from a 15th century carol which refers to a “Sire Christmas”. After being banned in post Civil War England as a symbol of “Catholic superstition and godless self-indulgence,” Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England and their version of Santa made a comeback.

17th Century - An important contribution to the image of Santa Claus was the phenomenon of Father Christmas in England. Also known as Old Father Christmas, Sir Christmas, and Lord Christmas – he was a traditional figure in English folklore and identified with the similarly bearded Old English god Woden.

He typically represented the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, but was not necessarily associated with either children or the bringing of gifts.

19th Century - Although the east coast of America was full of Dutch settlers - New York was originally New Amsterdam - it was not until the early 19th century that the figure of “Sinterklaas” would make his way properly across the Atlantic and so give birth to the Americanized Santa Claus.

Following the Revolutionary War the already heavily Dutch influenced New York City saw a new surge of interest in Dutch customs, and with them St. Nicholas.

In 1804 John Pintard, an influential patriot and antiquarian, founded the New York Historical Society and promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both the society and city.

On Dec. 6 1810 the society hosted its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner and Pintard commissioned the artist Alexander Anderson to draw an image of the saint to be handed out at the dinner.

In Anderson’s portrayal St. Nicholas was still shown as a religious figure, but now he was also clearly depositing gifts in fireside stockings and associated with rewarding the goodness of children. While “St. Nicholas day” never quite took off in the way Pintard wanted, Anderson’s image of “Sancte Claus” most certainly did.

A year before the New York Historical Society’s feast the author Washington Irving had written about Santa in his satirical fiction Knickerbocker’s History of New York, describing a jolly St. Nicholas character rather than the saintly bishop of yesteryear – and his Santa flew in a reindeer-pulled sleigh and delivered presents down chimneys.

The next key step to securing the image of Santa Claus was the 1822 poem entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas" written by Clement Moore, that most of us know as The Night Before Christmas.

Moore drew upon Irving’s description and Pintard’s New Amsterdam tradition and added some more Odin-like elements from German and Norse legends to create the winking, sleigh-riding Saint and also gave us the names for his eight flying reindeer.

20th Century - In 1902 The Life and Adventures Of Santa Claus by author of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, was published. With its elaborations and much-added detail, it went a long way to popularizing the legend of Santa.

By the time of World War II, Santa was pretty much set in a certain way, not only a Coca-Cola ad favorite, but he was also used in propaganda posters throughout the war.

In the end, we have the familiar American version of Santa: The jolly, gift-giving old fellow in the red suit and hat with white fur trim and black boots, who’s coming down with a sack of goodies and toys.

Santa, you’ve come a long way, baby!