In Europe, Saint Nicholas and other gift-giving spirits had (and in some places still have) a variety of helpers that bear no resemblance to the cute elves of the American Santa. These are ragged, sinister spirits, sometimes horned, often hairy with blackened or hideous faces, which carry rods to punish naughty children and evil doers, even dragging some away to hell. They go by a variety of names in various regions and include Knecht Rupprecht, Pelznickle, Zwarte Piets, Furry Nicholas, Rough Nicholas and Klapperbock. They are often identified with demons or the devil himself.
The English Father Christmas was a very different figure to the American Santa Claus until the mid-twentieth century. Before then, he personified the good will and cheer of the season, depicted in a variety of clothes, and never climbed down chimneys, had reindeer or filled stockings.
He was banned by the Puritans, along with mince pies and games. Occasionally secret publishers would print broadsheets with a verse about ‘Old Christmas’. He became the personification of everything the British people held dear about Christmas.
In the eighteenth century, Father Christmas began to appear in the Christmas plays of itinerant players. In the middle of the play, he would appear, heavily disguised, shouting his challenge, “In comes I, Old Father Christmas. Be I welcome or be I not – I hope that old Christmas will never be forgot!” He was used as a symbol of good living and gaiety in the eighteenth century in order to ridicule the Puritan objections to Christmas.
Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, described the Spirit of Christmas as a jolly character clad in a green robe and wreathed with holly, and Victorian illustrators usually depicted him as a very Pagan character with icicles or ivy round his head in robes of various colours.
As more influence came to Britain from America after World War II, Father Christmas was presented as a fat and jolly character, who filled stockings, and occasionally gave guest appearances at civic and public places. By the twentieth century, he was a common figure in most department stores the length and breadth of the British Isles. He was often austere looking and would ask children questions about their prayers, their reading, writing and arithmetic. If they had been naughty, he would tell them they must improve or he would not visit them at Christmas.
The American Santa Claus is generally stated to have his origins in Saint Nicholas, but modern representations of him don’t seem to bear much relation to a bishop. In 1809, Washington Irving published his satirical A History of New York poking fun at New York’s Dutch past. He represented St Nicholas as a jolly pipe-smoking Dutchman with baggy trousers, who rode over the tops of trees in a horse-drawn wagon dropping presents on children’s houses as he went. However, rather than the austere bishop, he was drawing on the tradition of the saint’s helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) who dressed in baggy trousers and wore pointed caps of the same colours.
St Nicholas was known as Sinterklaas in Holland. Children there would put their shoes in front of the fireplace with a present for his horse and sing songs such as:
Sinterklass, castrated cock
Throw something in my show
Throw something in my boot.
In 1821, a New York printer named William Gilley issued a poem about a Santeclaus who dressed all in fur and drove a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.
On Christmas Eve of 1822, another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote down and read to his children a series of verses; his poem was published a year later as An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today by its opening line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas . . .”). Moore gave St. Nick eight reindeer (and named them all), and devised the now-familiar entrance by chimney. Moore’s Nicholas was still a tiny figure, a ‘jolly old elf” with a miniature sleigh.
The image further developed in 1863 when an American political cartoonist called Thomas Nast was commissioned by Harper’s Weekly magazine to produce a Christmas cartoon, and drew one of Santa. As time went on, his annual cartoon developed and incorporated a range of Christmas imagery drawn from around the world. In 1866 the cartoon was published in colour for the first time, giving us Santa’s familiar red suit. Nast drew him walking on rooftops and going down chimneys, and gave us Santa’s workshop at the North Pole and his association with Mother Goose characters.
It is speculated that Nast based his image of Santa Claus not on Saint Nicholas, but on Pelznickle, his helper. Unlike Saint Nicholas in his bishop’s robes, the saint’s companions were hairy, bearded and fur clad. Nicholas didn’t come down the chimney, but his helpers did, and were subsequently covered in ashes and soot. The helper carried the bag and handed out the treats (or punishments) to children, not the saint.
There is an urban legend that an advertising campaign by Coca Cola created our modern image of Santa Claus. It is true that Haddon Sundblom, in 1931, created a series of Santa Claus ads for Coca-Cola, but his Santa image was very close to Nast’s, though it emphasised the red and white nature of the robes to echo Coca Cola’s famous brand more closely.
© Anna Franklin, abridged from Yule, History Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010