Dec 8, 2010

Origins of Santa Claus

During this holiday season it seems like a good time to explore the imagery of Santa Claus. We all know what Santa looks like now: he's fat, jolly, old and wears the famous red jacket with the white furry trim. He's like a big, super generous grandfather.

But how exactly did this image come about? Read this post to find out, and to find out how Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer was created.

(image courtesy of

The Origins of Santa Claus

According to Wikipedia, the character of Santa Claus was inspired and influenced by the Dutch, with a character called Sinterklaas, a traditional Dutch figure also known as Sint Nicolaas, or Saint Nicholas. The character is celebrated every year on Saint Nicholas' eve (December 5th) or, in Belgium, on the morning of 6 December. Sinterklass is also celebrated in a variety of eastern and European countries as well, with differing traditions from country to country.

As far as where the Sinterklass character came from, there are apparently a variety of theories, stemming from pagan rituals, to Germanic culture. Through the years, the character has evolved and changed depending on the religious and social trends of the time. A complete history of Sinterklass can be found here

Sinterklass has his origins in early Christianity; the source being Saint Nicholas (left), a 4th century Greek bishop from Myrna, which is now Turkey. His generous gifts to the poor were partly responsible for his fame. In the 10th century, Italian sailors raided Saint Nicholas' reliquary and took his remains to Bari, Italy, where they remain to this day.

(image source:

So from St. Nicholas in the 4th century, through the evolving traditions of Sinterklass throughout European history, came the next transformation: the blending of Sinterklass with Father Christmas, a figure that represents Christmas in many English-speaking countries. Father Christmas actually wore a green suit in the Tudor period of the 1500s-1600s. While Father Christmas and Santa Claus eventually merged into one character, Father Christmas was originally a very different character, not associated with gift giving, or children. The earliest known reference to Father Christmas was an anonymous Christmas carol written in the 15th century:
Goday, goday, my lord Sire Christëmas, goday!
Goday, Sire Christëmas, our king,
for ev'ry man, both old and ying,
is glad and blithe of your coming;
(source: Wikipedia)

The character appeared over the next 250 years, wearing a green robe until his more modern form began to emerge. The first person to use the name Santa Claus was writer Washington Irving in the 1809 book History of New York, in which he "Americanized" the name Sinterklass, depicting him as wearing a green coat, sporting a pipe and being an obese Dutch sailor. This was intended to be satire, a humorous depiction, but the image brought Santa Claus one step further to the figure we know today.

Fourteen years later, in 1823, the poem The Night Before Christmas was published anonymously, but has been attributed to both Clement Clark Moore as well as  Henry Livingston Jr. and cemented Santa Claus into popular culture as a round, jolly figure who came down chimneys and left presents under the tree, traveling by reindeer (even naming them) in a flying sled.

The poem firmly cemented almost all of the now-familiar traits and details about Santa Claus. Before this poem, ideas about Santa Claus were diverse and varied.

The poem:
To see the excellent 1931 original printing of this poem, illustrations and all, click HERE

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

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.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

The poem above was written in 1823, and in 1863, the American cartoonist Thomas Nast crew a cartoon of Santa Claus for the magazine Harper's Weekly, a political magazine published between 1857 until 1916,  featuring foreign and domestic news, fiction, essays on many subjects, and humor. Nast was a hugely influential cartoonist whose drawings affected elections, and could bring down politicians. Nast's final illustration for Harper's Weekly was his drawing of Santa Claus, visiting an army camp during the civil war,  depicting him as being plump and bearded. 

In 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon, then 8 years old and filled with doubts about Santa Claus, and hearing claims by her class mates that there was no such thing as Santa Claus, wrote a letter to The New York Sun newspaper, asking if Santa Claus was real, or was he just made up, as her friends insisted?

The letter was answered on September 21st, 1897, in an anonymous editorial, written by a former Civil War reporter Francis P. Church. The response was a five paragraph editorial; here's the first paragraph:

"VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge." To see the entire editorial click HERE.

The Coca-Cola Campaign
In the 1930s, the American artist Hubbard "Sunny" Sundblom created images of Santa for the Coca Cola company that even further cemented the Santa Claus imagery in popular culture. The advertising campaign for Coke was extraordinarily effective and defined Santa Claus as he is now known.

From there, movies, radio and television built upon this character until the mythology of Santa Claus is now firmly established. 

Santa Claus lives at the North Pole (even though the north pole is all water and has no land), where he has a factory where he makes the toys and gifts for all the good boys and girls all over the world. He travels in a big sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer. As to how he can visit each home in just one night while everyone is asleep is generally attributed to a magical power that Santa Claus has, as is his ability to fit all of the loot into one sack that fits in the back of his sleigh. He comes down the chimney with his sleigh and reindeer waiting for him on the roof of each house he visits.

 The Origins of Rudolph

It was the executives at the department store chain Montgomery Ward who created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. 

The year was 1939, and the Great Depression was still a drag on store sales, not to mention the war and its effect on American minds. The executives at Montgomery Ward, one of the largest retails in the country at its height, needed something fresh to get customers excited about Christmas. The traditional poems and carols (including The Night Before Christmas) all seemed dated and tired even back then. 

So they asked a company copywriter called Robert May to create a new angle on Christmas. May ended up creating a poem about a little reindeer who was shunned because he was different, but ending up the hero at the end. The executives at Montgomery Ward printed the poem in a book, with illustrations by Denver Gillen, and gave out 2.5 million copies that Christmas.

People latched onto the underdog who ended up triumphing at the end, a tale that seemed especially poignant considering how difficult childhood can be, and the on-going war against Hitler.  Over 100,000 copies of the book were sold during he 1947-1948 Christmas seasons, and then, of course, along came the song.

May's brother-in-law Johnny Marks, created a song based on the poem, sung by Gene Autry in 1949, selling two million copies in the first season it was released. The legend of Rudolph was born. Hundreds of licensed Rudolph-related products were created, and in 1964 the Christmas special was broadcast, a stop-motion program produced by Rankin/Bass, adding some additional characters to the story, like Yukon Cornelius and Clarice, the female reindeer.

Source: It's A Wonderful Christmas: The Best Of The Holidays 1940-1965 by Susan Waggoner

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