In the American celebration of Christmas, perhaps no figure is as ubiquitous during the season as Santa Claus. He can be seen everywhere--in department stores taking wish lists from children, on the street corner ringing bells for the Salvation Army, on television commercials, in television specials, and so on. Santa Claus has been central to the American observation of the holidays in the 20th and 21st centuries. And like many aspects of the modern Christmas celebration, the history of Santa Claus goes back a bit further than the 20th century.
Indeed, the origins of the American figure of Santa Claus are complex. They can be found in two historical figures, a god, and a personification of the holiday. The primary inspiration for Santa Claus is one of the two historical figures. St. Nicholas of Myra was the bishop of Myra in Lycia in the eastern Roman Empire in the 4th century. After his death he would be considered the patron saint of archers, the armed forces, sailors, the wrongly accused, and many other groups. As might be expected, he is also considered the patron saint of children. While being the patron saint of more people and groups than other saint, Nicholas is perhaps best known for the generosity he practised during his lifetime. In fact, perhaps the most famous legend concerning St. Nicholas centred around his generosity. There was a poor man with three daughters who could not afford a dowry for them. As a result of this there was the strong possibility that they would never marry and perhaps even fall into prostitution. Nicholas heard about the poor man and his daughters, and decided to help him. To spare the man the humiliation of having to accept charity, Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the man's window (some versions of the tale has it that he three one bag through the window on three consecutive nights).
Across Europe, St. Nicholas' day would be set as December 6. In many parts of Europe, then, St. Nicholas' Day would become a day of gift giving. Particularly important to the evolution of the American figure of Santa Claus would be the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas' Day. St. Nicholas, called "Sinterklaas" in the Netherlands, delivers gifts to children on St. Nicholas' Eve (the evening of December 5). He is portrayed as having a long white beard and wearing red bishop's raiments. He rides a white horse, called called Amerigo, who can fly over rooftops. He is assisted in his work by Zwarte Piet, "Black Peter." Like Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet would bring treats to the good children, although he would also punish the bad ones. The influence of Sinterklaas on the American figure of Santa Claus is fairly obvious. Both are portrayed with beards. Both dress almost entirely in red. Both have assistants (Zwarte Piet in the case of Sinterklaas, the elves in the case of Santa Claus).
In those countries speaking Germanic languages, at least, the figure of St. Nicholas may have been influenced by the god called Wodan in Old Saxon (the language from which modern Dutch sprung) and called Óðinn by the Vikings. Like St. Nicholas, Óðinn was seen as a gift giver. Various legends portray Óðinn as bestowing gifts to his champions. Like St. Nicholas he is portrayed as having a long, grey beard. And like St. Nicholas Óðinn was said to ride a marvellous horse. Óðinn's horse, Sleipnir was said to be grey or white in colour and said to have eight legs, making him faster than any other horse in the worlds. Sleipnir was said to be able to carry Óðinn over the sea and through the air, and was said to even be able to journey to Hel, the world of dead. It seems possible that while certain elements of the legendary St. Nicholas stem from the historical figure, it is possible that other elements (such as his marvellous horse) could have been drawn from the Dutch's memories of Wodan.
Besides St. Nicholas, another historical figure (or perhaps a legendary figure based on a historical figure would be a better way to describe it) would also play a role in the evolution of Santa Claus. In the 15th century Martin Luther, wishing to distance himself from Catholicism, actively discouraged the customs of St. Nicholas and St. Nicholas' Day. For that reason he developed the idea of another gift giver. Luther meant the Christkind to be the incarnation of Jesus as an infant, although the figure evolved away from that considerably. The Christkind was most often depicted as a blonde child with the wings of the usual portrayal of angels in Christianity. Unlike St. Nicholas, the Christkind delivered his gifts on Christmas Eve, not unlike the modern day Santa Claus. The idea of the Christkind was brought to the United States, where his name would evolve into the mispronunciation Kris Kringle, now regarded as another name for Santa Claus.
The final figure to play a role in shaping Santa Claus was the English figure of Father Christmas. Like Santa Claus, the origins of Father Christmas are complex. Like the legendary figure of Saint Nicholas, he may have largely been inspired by the god called by the pagan Angles and Saxons "Woden ("Wodan" to the Dutch, "Óðinn" to the Vikings). Regardless, throughout the Middle Ages, this English personification of Christmas evolved until he was the Father Christmas known during the Victorian Era. Dressed in a furred, hooded robe of green and often wearing holly and having a long, grey beard, Father Christmas was not seen as a gift giver, but he was instead seen as presiding over Christmas revelries. Over the years he would play a large role in masques and mummer's plays.
All of this brings us to the area of North America that would later become the United States of America. Even in the earliest times, what would become the United States was settled by a variety of ethnicities: the English, the Dutch, the Germans, and the French. And each of these ethnicities would bring their own holiday customs. The Dutch brought with them the figure of Sinterklaas and the celebration of St. Nicholas' Day. The Germans brought with them the figure of the Christkind and his gift giving activities on Christmas Eve. The English brought with them the figure of Father Christmas, his furred robe, and his love of the Christmas festival. It was in the United States that these various figures would merge to create a new one, the American figure of Santa Claus. The Dutch name Sinterklaas would become Americanised as Santa Claus. Under the influence of the figure of the Christkind, his gift giving activities shifted from St. Nicholas' Day to Yule Eve--it is perhaps for this reason that Santa Claus is also called "Kris Kringle." Because of Father Christmas, Santa Claus would lose the bishop's mitre and robes and wear fur lined clothing instead, not to mention he would become a bit more jolly.
Of course, even after these figures had combined to lay the groundwork for the modern American Santa Claus, it would take some time before he would evolve into the figure we all know today. It was in 1804 that the New York Historical Society revived the Dutch custom of St Nicholas as a giver of gifts. Washington Irving would eventually join the organisation, observing its St. Nicholas' celebration, complete with rhymes about Sinterclaas. When Washington Irving revised his History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (first published in 1809) in 1812, he included "Santa Claus (the Americanised version of "Sinterclaas")," portraying him not as a bishop, but as a Dutch sailor wearing a green coat and with a pipe. Irving also described Santa's flight over the treetops in a wagon. A New York printer named William Gilley would further add to the mythos of Santa Claus in a poem published in 1821. Writing about Santeclaus, Gilley portrayed him as dressed entirely in fur and driving a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.
A pivotal moment in the evolution of Santa Claus would arrive in the form of the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," first published in 1822. Often attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, the poem established many of the particulars of the Santa Claus legend. It established that Santa Claus' sleigh is driven by eight reindeer and gives those reindeer their names. It also established Santa Claus as going down chimneys to delivery his toys. And while elves were not yet established as Santa's helpers, it is in "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" that he is first described as "a jolly old elf." The poem also established Santa as being somewhat overweight.
Of course, even after the publication of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," the appearance of Santa was not set in stone. Washington Irving, William Gilley, and the author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" all portray him as being rather small. "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" even describes him as the "little old driver" of a "miniature sleigh." And while Gilley and the author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" both describe Santa as dressed all in fur, at this point in history he was often still portrayed in bishop's mitre and robes. It would be political cartoonist Thomas Nast who would shape the modern image of Santa. Nast first illustrated Santa for the 1862 holiday edition of Harper's Weekly. While Nast's Santa would vary in size, more often than not, he was roughly the size of a man. He was also jolly, rotund, and dressed in fur lined clothing.
Thomas Nast's impact on the mythos of Santa Claus would go further than shaping his appearance. It was in the illustration "Santa Claus and His Works," first published in Harper's Weekly, December 29, 1866, that Thomas Nast established Santa Claus as a maker of toys. It was in a book titled Santa Claus and His Works, featuring Thomas Nast's illustrations and a poem by George Webster, that it was established that Santa Claus uses the North Pole as his base. By 1881, Nast's illustrations of Santa had developed to where they were very close to the modern image of the jolly old elf.
It was roughly during the same period that elves would be established as Santa's helpers. It was Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, who first made reference to elves as Santa's helpers, in the unpublished story "Christmas Elves" from 1856. Another reference to elves as Santa's helpers occurs in an anonymous poem titled "The Wonders of Santa Claus," first published in 1857 in Harper's Weekly. By the late 19th century, elves were firmly established as Santa's work force.
It would be by 1885 that the modern day concept of Santa would nearly be in place. Given the black and white illustrations common up to that time, it was anyone's guess as to the colour of Santa's suit. Louis Prang introduced the idea of the Christmas card, invented by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 in Britain, to the United States. Among the cards he published in 1885 was one that featured a chubby Santa in a red suit. The image caught on and became the dominant image of Santa Claus.
While the mythos of Santa Claus was developing in the 19th century and his image evolving away from the bishop's raiments of St. Nicholas, he was also becoming more of a force in the American celebration of Christmas. As early as the 1840s, retail stores were advertising themselves as "Santa's headquarters." In fact, in 1841 Philadelphia merchant J. W Parkinson hired a man dressed as Santa Claus to climb the chimney of his shop. By 1874 Macy's became the first store to have their own in store Santa Claus. By the turn of the 19th century, Santa Claus was firmly rooted in the American Christmas celebration, seen in everything from Christmas cards to the advertising of the time.
Indeed, Santa Claus was popular enough that in 1802 L. Frank Baum, best known for the Oz books, published The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. In the book Santa is established as an abandoned infant raised by fairies who eventually becomes the gift giver we all know. The mythos Baum created for Santa Claus would not catch on, but The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus would further add to Santa's popularity.
By now it should be clear that the claim so often made that Coca-Cola created the modern image of Santa Claus is patently false. The idea of Santa Claus dressed in a red and white was well established before the 1930s, when Coca-Cola hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create memorable drawings of the jolly old elf for use in their advertising. That having been said, while Coca-Cola had little to do with standardising the image of Santa Claus (which had largely been completed by the beginning of the 20th century), they were among the earliest corporations to make a good deal of use of Kris Kringle in their advertising. Alongside department stores such as Macy's, Coca-Cola was then largely responsible for turning Santa Claus into an advertising icon.
Of course, even if Coca-Cola had never used Santa Claus in their ads, he probably would have become an advertising icon nonetheless. By the 20th century, Santa Claus had become an established part of the American Christmas celebration. In fact, Santa Claus appears so frequently in American pop culture that it would be impossible to list every single reference to him. Perhaps the most famous appearance of Santa Claus in a pop culture artefact is the movie Miracle on 34th Street, in which an old man calling himself "Kris Kringle" claims to really be Santa Claus. Naturally Santa Claus played a big role in the many Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer to their adaptation of Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Santa has also figured in many, many songs, including "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Santa Baby," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and many others.
Given his long history and the role he plays in the American Christmas celebration, one would think that Santa Claus would be universally loved. As the case may be, this is not true. Many Fundamentalist Christians regard the figure of Santa Claus as detracting from the religious observance of the holiday. Others view Santa Claus as being a symbol of the the commercialisation of the holiday season. They see Santa Claus not as a symbol of generosity and holiday joy, but of crass commercialism and conspicuous consumption. The controversy Santa Claus generates is perhaps nothing new. In 17th century England the Puritans banned Christmas as a pagan celebration and frowned upon the figure of Father Christmas.
While there are naysayers, I think it safe to say that a majority of Americans have no objections to Santa Claus. And why should they? He is a fond memory from most of their childhoods, well established in American folklore by the beginning of the 20th century. Regardless of what Fundamentalist Christians and those objecting to the commercialism of the holiday might desire, I don't think Santa Claus is going to go away any time soon. Quite simply, I rather think he will be making his annual trips around the world from the North Pole for a very long time.