BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — Over the past weeks at KX News, we’ve been heavily into uncovering the origins and ideas behind holiday traditions surrounding Santa Claus. We’ve discussed both the history of the figure that most adaptations of the holiday hero were based on, as well as the companions that join him in his adventures every year.
But despite all that, we haven’t really answered the big question tying together both the past and future — how did the original character of Saint Nicholas evolve over time into the modern tradition of the gift-giving man in the big red suit? The answer is one that has its roots in name translations, cultures, and marketing methods throughout the world.
Before Santa’s arrival this evening, we’d like to tell you the history of the modern depictions of the man, myth and legend of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Put another log on the fire and grab a drink (the big man himself recommends Coca-Cola) as we take an objective look at the origins of Santa Claus.
The Patron Saint of Santa
We’ve gone into detail regarding the first iteration of the man who would be known as Santa Claus before on KX’s digital pages, but for those who haven’t seen the article, here’s a quick rundown. The original depictions of St. Nicholas portray him as the patron saint of children, sailors and prisoners (and brewers, oddly enough) in the Christian faith. Even though the character has seen many changes over the years as he moves from country to country, his generosity and kindness towards children have always carried over.
While there are plenty of stories concerning Saint Nicholas, the most relevant to Santa’s evolution is a tale regarding his act of kindness towards a father and his three children. According to legends, Saint Nicholas once came across a man who had his entire fortune taken away from him by the devil. His lack of money led the man to fear for his daughters — without being able to put up the fee to marry them, the father was concerned they would never find husbands, and thus, fall into a life of prostitution and despair. Nicholas heard of the man’s plight, but not wanting to shame the man by offering help in public, decided to give to his cause discreetly.
As the story goes, one night, Saint Nicholas threw a pouch of golden coins through the man’s window. This was enough to put up the marriage fees for the first of his daughters. The evening of the first marriage, Saint Nicholas threw a second pouch into the home, enabling the second daughter to be married. Now extremely suspicious, the father spent multiple days awake before eventually encountering Saint Nicholas in the act. In exchange for the third and final pouch, Nicholas demanded that the man keep quiet about his generosity. This is widely considered to be the first instance that fuses both Nicholas’s kindness towards children and his tendency towards generosity — traits that carry on to most if not all modern interpretations of Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas even has his own holiday — the Feast of Saint Nicholas, which takes place on December 6th. In some countries, this is actually still the day that Christmas and December festivities are celebrated on in order to save December 24th and 25th for worship of the Christ Child. With him, it’s easy to see where many of the traits of the Santa we know of today first took shape… but there are a few other early incarnations
Sinterklaas of the Father
Before discussing the modern Santa, it’s important to mention the iterations of him around the globe that came before the version we see today. Two of these deserve particular mentions as the earliest ideas that cemented the idea of Saint Nicholas as a gift-giver and holiday figure. The first of these is Father Christmas, who dates back from 16th century England. Here, he was depicted by a larger man in green or red robes, lined with fur, and as the representation of Christmas Cheer, revelry, and the holiday feast.
Ironically, though this iteration of the figure may not be the idea behind Santa Claus anymore, but instead fits the description for an entirely different festive figure. Many film adaptations of ‘A Christmas Carol’ feature a figure that strongly represents Father Christmas as their depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The most relevant aspect of early English celebrations of the holiday is that the celebrations of Father Christmas were moved to December 25th around the time of his inception, primarily because the Feast of Saint Nicholas wasn’t celebrated anymore.
The second figure of interest in these early years is Sinterklaas, hailing from Belgium and The Netherlands. As the most direct link between the original Saint Nicholas and the name ‘Santa Claus’, his delivery day remains the 6th of December in most areas. Many of the ideas we know from Santa’s traditions — including a trusty steed of some sort, leaving out offerings, gift-giving and the classic Nice and Naughty lists — stem from this version of the man.
In these countries, Sinterklaas rides a white horse (currently named Ozosnel, or Oh so Fast, in the Netherlands, and either Slecht weer vandaag or Mooi weer vandaag in Belgium, which mean ‘bad weather today’ and ‘nice weather today’ respectively), and carries a large red book which records whether children have been good or bad over the past year. St. Nicholas’ Eve traditions, too, inspired many of Santa’s practices, albeit in a more reserved way. As the tales go, on the night of December 5, children all leave one of their shoes by the chimney, sing a song and present offerings of treats — which can include water, hay and sugar cubes for Sinterklaas’s horse, a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas himself, and even a bottle of beer for his helper Zwarte Piet (who we’ve discussed at length in another article). If everything is done right and the kids have been good, they’ll awaken to find sweets, fruit, or small presents inside their shoe.
Fusing the traditions of Sinterklaas and the dates and appearance of Father Christmas gives us a basic idea of what would later form Santa Claus, but this begs the question — how did he emerge as the rotund, red-suited figure we all dream of on Christmas Eve?
Jolly Old Saint Knick-O-Las
As many Dutch immigrated from the Netherlands to the United States in 1664, they brought with them their traditions, including Sinterklaas himself. In the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which we now know as downtown NYC, he was such a popular figure that he was even named the patron saint of the New York Historical society, and the city itself. However, many people feared losing their culture thanks to the change in the area and ongoing British occupation, and so a group known as “The Knickerbockers” was formed to protect and chronicle Dutch traditions. One member of the group, a writer named Washington Irving (you might know him as the writer of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle among others) placed a large number of these traditions into a collection and published them in a book called A History of New York under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker.
In this satirical and informative book, multiple references to Sinterklaas were featured, including information stating he flew across the sky in a wagon and dropped presents down to good children. In this writing, he was portrayed as a smaller, stockier man smoking a pipe, dressed in colonial clothing. The book (and Irving’s clever marketing of it) became a tremendous success, so much so that the pen name ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’ became a nickname in Manhattan for some time, and the made-up man is still regarded as a major piece of state history (even New York’s NBA team’s name the ‘Knicks’ is actually short for the Knickerbockers). It was also responsible for spreading many of the ideas of Christmas — especially the depiction of a mythical gift-giving figure — around the country. This earlier version of Santa was still rough around the edges, but would be sharpened by the aid of one of Irving’s friends.
Another key figure behind the modern depiction of Santa Claus was Clement Clarke Moore, who just so happened to be a friend of Irving inspired by his tales of Dutch traditions. As a gift to his children, Moore wrote a Christmas poem. Although many believe it was never meant to be shown to the public, it was submitted anonymously to the New York Sentinel in 1823, and would later become one of the hallmarks of the season and the first real idea of Santa Claus himself. That poem was originally known as A Visit from St. Nicholas, but nowadays we know it by the name ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
In this poem, many of the Dutch traditions were given a different look to make the story more relatable to other readers. The shoes became stockings, and the wagon was replaced with a sleigh pulled by reindeer (who made their first appearance in the legend as well). Most important, however, was St. Nick himself, who was described thusly:
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,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
The wild popularity of the poem only furthered this idea of Santa as a plump, jolly figure as opposed to a tall and slender saint, and most works depicting the icon at this point would continue to portray him as such. It wasn’t until the American Civil War that Santa would finally be depicted as the man we know today.
Nast Christmas, I Gave You My Art
Up until the early 1860s, while the short and stocky image of Santa popularized by the works of Irving and Moore was well-ingrained in popular culture, his outfit was a stark contrast to what we know now. In the olden days, this pudgy Saint Nicholas was usually portrayed in bishop’s robes or a typical pointed hat and coat. However, in 1863, political magazine Harper’s Weekly (which was the most widely-read journal in the United States at the time) asked cartoonist Thomas Nast (who also created the ideas of the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey) to draw a picture of Santa Claus delivering gifts to troops on the front lines of the Civil War, which was currently underway. The result fused both the pudgy holiday icon with American pride, and gave him a star-spangled outfit while retaining his jolly past depictions.
Interestingly enough, Nast, a staunch Union supporter, also used Santa for several instances of Civil War propaganda. In this image, Nast’s most famous artwork of Saint Nicholas as we know him, historians have pointed out that the pro-military Nast included many symbols in the piece relating to the government’s flip-flopping on increasing the wages of military members (including the belt buckle representing the army, the toy horse being a Trojan Horse, and the pocket watch implying the government is running out of time). The most obvious example of this is that the sack of toys on Santa’s back isn’t a bag at all — it’s a military backpack.
This drawing of Santa was so popular that the magazine asked Nast to draw Santa Claus during the holidays for 40 years — at some point, dropping the patriotic attire and replacing it with a simple red wool suit, which has over time become the de facto appearance of Mr. Claus in most forms of media around the world. To some, though, an entirely different entity who would come much later was behind this spread of Santa’s popularity. And if you’ve seen the ads, or even visited a place that sells soda, you’ve probably heard of them before.
There is a surprisingly widespread belief that the Coca-Cola Company first depicted Santa Claus in the red outfit we all know today — and it is so popular that even the company itself has put out a statement denying it and crediting earlier iterations (particularly Moore’s). However, it can be said that Coke was vastly important in popularizing and refining the version of Santa that is most often seen in modern times — and all of it is due to a particularly effective marketing campaign by the company in the last century.
(Note: this post is not sponsored by Coca-Cola… the writer just has a serious soda addiction).
Santa Claus’s history with Coke (the soda, to be specific) stems from the 1920s, where designs similar to the ones created by Thomas Nast made their appearances in advertisements for the soft drink. While these did their fare share of bringing in sales, he didn’t really take off until 1930 — when artist Fred Mizen painted a picture of Santa enjoying a Coca-Cola at Famous Barr Co. in St. Louis (home to the world’s largest soda fountain). This image, when used in a December edition of the Saturday Evening Post, became a major hit.
Following the popularity of Mizen’s depiction, in 1931, the company aimed to create another depiction of Santa who was a figure who could be used for holiday advertising while still capturing the essence of the warmth and goodwill the holiday stood for. The artist commissioned for the job of creating this new marketable Claus was Haddon Sundblom, who at the time worked at the D’Arcy Advertising Agency.
At first, Sundblom looked back to Moore’s interpretation of the round jolly man from A Visit from St. Nicholas for his inspiration — but while that did a good job of describing his idealized figure, it would take a human model to create the perfect depiction of Santa. With his friend Lou Prentiss serving as a model (with Sundblom later becoming the model himself after Prentiss passed away), he created an incarnation of Santa who not only served as an advertising vehicle but would go on to become one of the definitive images of Mr. Claus in history. This Santa was wildly popular, and only further cemented the red-suited jolly man in popular culture. Sundblom’s version of Kris Kringle spread like wildfire, branching out into not only Coke advertisements but magazines and newspapers. Although the artist constantly worked on his design for Santa Claus (and in fact didn’t create a final version until the 60s), his earlier iterations — and likewise, the other adaptations this version of the holiday mascot inspired — became even huger in advertising than any of the other incarnations of Saint Nicholas, and is effectively the most current popular iteration of the man himself.
To this day, Saint Nick and Coca-Cola go hand in hand, as both an effective way to market the product over the holidays and to pay respects to the company that set the boom of modern Santa in motion. As it turns out, the Coca-Cola Company states that people paid so much attention to the ads featuring him that even slight mistakes or omissions in some of their Santa ads would prompt people to send physical letters to their offices pointing them out. The most famous of these stemmed from a piece where Santa was seen without a wedding ring, causing people to contact the company asking if he and Mrs. Claus were having trouble in their relationship.
Another curious fact is that some of Coca-Cola’s early Santa ads in the 40s and 50s featured a sidekick for Santa, known as ‘Sprite Boy’, who was also created by Sundblom. Interestingly, there was no relation between the child and the lemon-lime soft drink also produced by the company — Sprite Boy predated the release of Sprite by nearly 20 years, and vanished before it hit the shelves in 1961.
As with any figure who has remained in popular culture for some time, though, even the famous incarnation of Santa Claus is prone to being portrayed in different genres and lights across all forms of media. This, combined with how people can draw their own ideas of the more bizarre or wholesome aspects from stories of Santa, has led to interpretations of all kinds. We’re all familiar with movies like the Santa Clause series or the Rankin/Bass productions that portray not only possible explanations of the jolly old man’s existence and his origins– and likewise, what he became as a result.
While the typical image of Santa as a jolly gift-giver is prevalent in many adaptations, a few of them like to put the same character in unusual situations, or portray his backstory and existence in more amusing or surprisingly intense tales. More recently, the idea of Santa as an action hero has taken an odd hold in culture, using his magical traits to come out on top of dangerous situations. This can be seen even this year, with films like Violent Night (about a cynical Santa, formerly a murderous Viking, who must save a rich family under siege by killing the forces assaulting their home) and 2020’s Fatman (about a more downtrodden Santa fighting against an assassin to save his failing business) coming to the big screen as major motion pictures. An earlier CGI film, Rise of the Guardians, pictures him as a kindly, yet mighty warrior who employs Yetis to help with toymaking and leads a band of other holiday heroes in battle with a pair of swords. Some movies have also offered backstories for the character including pasts as a Viking, woodsman, and godlike figure, among other things. Some of the older X-Men comics even imply that Santa is not only a mutant, but one of the most powerful mutants ever discovered — boasting reality-warping abilities, immortality, teleportation, weather control, and a host of other holiday-themed powers — implying that Mr. Claus would be a major threat to world stability if he wasn’t the kind and jolly old man we’re familiar with.
In the same vein, the love of more alternative genres of media than typical feel-good holiday specials has given rise to depictions of Santa as a more overworked, aggressive, or even terrifying figure. Typically, this idea is used for comedy (such as in Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa), but there are other adaptations that some horror films have even given their own spin on Christmas — including Scandinavian horror film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale and the old-school American slasher series Silent Night, Deadly Night (the second of these is primarily known for it’s unintentional hilarity at times more than anything else, however).
It clearly wasn’t a straightforward road to creating the Santa Claus of today — rather, the history of the man is steeped in ideas passed from saints to writers to artists, and eventually, we imagine, further down the road for people to create their own unique interpretations of the character. Much like Christmas itself, though, it’s key to note that the main aspects of Santa are still there– particularly his generosity and kindness towards children. And as long as this idea of what the figure stands for is present in the character, even if his appearance changes more in the future, he’ll still be the holiday mascot we all know and love.