Santa Claus has been loved and treasured for generations for many years all over the world. As a Patron of Christmas, Santa Claus has brought gifts to the children of the world.
His popular image has been associated with a 4th century Bishop known as Saint Nicholas of Myra (now near modern Demre, Turkey). St. Nicholas is one of the minor commentive saints in both Eastern and Western Christianity now traditionally associated with Christmas. St Nicholas of Myra’s feast day is December 6, which in many countries, particularly in Europe, celebrates the exchanging and receiving of gifts.
St Nicholas of Myra was renowed for his compassion, empathy and kindness towards the poor and vulnerable. He is patron saint of children, students, sailors and several European nations.
It is the Netherlands where Santas Claus, we begin to see some semblance of the Santa Claus that we all know today. Each year, the much-loved saint was honoured during the Feast of Saint Nicholas (or Sint-Nikolaas), on December 6th, where parents would leave gifts out for their children, who naturally believed Saint Nicholas had paid them a visit during the night.
Unlike the modern depictions of Santa Claus, the Dutch version of this jolly fellow rode on a donkey and wore a tall pointy bishop’s hat.
In the same way kids today leave out a glass of milk with some cookies for Santa and his reindeer, Dutch children would fill their clogs with straw and leave them out for the donkey to eat.
When they woke up the next morning, they’d find the straw gone and their shoes packed with presents.
Santa’s sleigh-ride to the USA
The myth of Santa Claus has evolved over the years, since he has always been a beloved childhood story strongly associated with the joy, compassion and laugher of Christmas. Christmas is a time of thinking about others, and it is definitely a time for children, including embracing one’s inner child.
Santa Claus has always been fondly loved in living memory for both adults and children. It’s no suprise that this story has transpired over the years. In 1664, the legend of Saint Nicholas travelled across the Atlantic to Dutch colony of New Amsterdam; or as it’s known today, New York City.
In the 200 years that followed, and as a means of preserving their culture and traditions in the face of British settlement, a group of Dutch intellectuals gathered together and called themselves the “Knickerbockers.”
A prominent member of the group was a writer named Washington Irving, who published a book called The Knickerbocker’s History of New York, containing satirical versions of Dutch traditions and stories.
Throughout the book there were several dozen references to a “Sinter Klaas” – an adaptation of “Sint Nikolaas” – accompanied by details of him flying across the sky in a wagon and dropped presents down chimneys for good little girls and boys.
Washington’s wild, endearing description of the saint very quickly became known to New Yorkers. The English settlers enthusiastically adopted the joyful Dutch celebrations of St. Nicholas’ Day, and gradually began to combine them with their own traditions of celebrating Christmas and the new year.
When it comes to pronunciation, it’s easy to see how “Sinter Klaas” could translate to “Santa Claus” when you apply the accent of an English-speaking New Yorker.
The Night Before Christmas….that famous Christmas Book!
Clement Clarke Moore was a friend of Washington Irving, and another important contributor to the picture of Santa we have today.
Teresa Chris, author of the book The Story of Santa Claus, wrote that in 1822, Moore sat down to write his children a Christmas poem, having been inspired by Irving’s tales.
Clement’s poem, originally titled A Visit from St. Nicholas, soon became known as the classic The Night Before Christmas and was so popular that within a decade it had become canon with regard to the Santa legend.
When writing the poem, Teresa said Clement made a few alterations to the Sinter Klaas legend to make the story more relatable to people from a British/Anglo background, and it’s interesting to note how his alterations still manifest in the Santa mythology of today.
“The clogs the Dutch children left by the chimney corner on December 6 became something all children could relate to in cold weather – stockings, and the wagon became a “miniature sleigh” pulled by “eight tiny reindeer,” Teresa wrote in her book.
The horse drawn sleigh with its bells was a common means of transport for the English, and substituting horses with reindeer added an element of mystery to Saint Nick, as though he was from an ice-capped Northern land, where few people had traveled, somewhere secluded from the world.
It’s believed that Clement never intended for anyone other than his family to hear A Visit From St. Nicholas. He allegedly even refused to admit he was the author. Despite his objections, the poem wound up printed anonymously in the New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Some say it was thanks to Clement’s wife Catharine Taylor who liked the story so much that she sent copies to her friends.
The mythology connecting Santa with the Christmas period had been well and truly established by this stage, but there was still some discrepancy around what exactly Santa looked like.
Santa Claus & the American Civil War
During the mid-1800s, it was popular to draw Santa Claus either in his bishop’s robes or as a man with a pointed hat, long coat, and straight beard. It wasn’t uncommon to see Santa drawn as quite tall and gaunt.
This changed in 1863, when Harper’s Weekly hired a 21-year-old named Thomas Nast to draw a picture of Santa Claus bringing gifts to troops fighting in the American Civil War.
The Santa that Thomas drew combined Clement’s description of Saint Nicholas from The Night Before Christmas with the all too familiar propaganda image of Uncle Sam.
Nast’s Santa was a jolly, roly-poly old man who wore a star-spangled jacket, striped pants, and a cap.
“The drawing boosted the spirits of soldiers and civilians alike because it showed that the spirit of Christmas had come to the Civil War,” wrote historian James I. Robertson.
It was so popular, that every year, for 40 years, when the magazine asked Nast to draw Santas, he stuck with the same concept – although he did eventually drop the stars and stripes in favor of a plain wool suit.
Although this woolen suit was sometime green, Nast popularised Saint Nick’s famous red clothes, more than four decades prior to The Coca-Cola Company’s depiction of Santa – contrary to the rumour that “Coca-Cola made Santa red”.
Santa Claus & Coca-Cola
In the mid-1800’s, not unlike the depictions of Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus, this Santa was usually depicted outside the world’s largest soda fountain or visiting high profile department stores, and things stayed that way up until the 1930s.
Then in 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned the services of D’Arcy Advertising Agency and Michigan-born artist Haddon Sundblom to create a campaign featuring a more wholesome and approachable Santa Claus – something that captured the true essence of Santa himself, and wasn’t just a man dressed up in a costume. A Santa that showed a magical side to Christmas.
Hadden’s inspiration came from Clement’s The Night Before Christmas. The description of Santa as a “jolly old elf” dressed in red furs who goes down chimneys to give children their gifts was instrumental for laying down the foundations for the image of the modern-day Santa Claus.
Over the years, Coca-Cola has also used its advertising showed Santa delivering toys (and playing with them!), pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, visiting with the children who stayed up to greet him and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes. Haddon himself portrayed Santa a few years since Santa must have been busy up in the North Pole for a photo shoot!
I’m sure our good friend in the North Pole would enjoy a refreshing and sparking soft drink of Coca-Cola. Especially after delivering all those presents to all the children of the world.
The representation of Santa Claus hasn’t changed much thanks to the clever advertising of not only Coca-Cola, but for all businesses (now online) and face-to-face, past to present. Certainly honouring the culture and the legend that is Santa Claus or (Sinter Klaas) but also that it is continuely evolving.
Santa Claus hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. He still rocks a beard. Still jolly, merry and giving. And in the Southern Hemisphere, (where I’m from) you could probably find him surfing, or playing cricket or even just enjoy a nice snooze after Christmas Day, if he wants to stay in Australia!
Let’s not crush anyone’s childlike wonder. Let’s not crush any child’s wonder. Just believe.
His legend continues, and yes, I still believe.