Santa Claus is generally stated to have his origins in Saint Nicholas, the austere gift-giving spirit in much of Europe, himself probably based on earlier punishment-and-reward spirits associated with the winter solstice. 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.
However, modern representations of Santa 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 of European lore, 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.
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, and had a much older connection to the solstice than the saint. 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.
By the early 1900’s Santa Claus had become a favourite in Christmas cards and advertising and in 1927 the New York Times described him in detail – the sack full of toys, red costume, white whiskers and jolly, ruddy cheeks.
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.
In contrast, the oldEnglish 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, games, and the celebration of Christmas itself. Occasionally secret publishers would print broadsheets with a verse about ‘Old Christmas’. In An Hue and Cry after Christmas (1645), which described the imprisonment of Christmas on St Thomas’ Day, he was described as:
“This hoary headed man was of great years, and as white as snow. He entered the Romish Kallendar, time out of mind, as old, or very near, as Father Mathusalem was – one that looked fresh in the Bishops’ time, though their fall made him pine away ever since. He was full and fat…just like Bacchus upon a tunne of wine, when the grapes hang shaking about his ears”
In the Vindication of Christmas (1652), ‘Old Christmas’ complained about the way he was used in the city and found small comfort in any house, announcing “Welcome or not, I am come.” Another periodical (Mercurius Democritus) published the verses:
Old Christmas now is come to town,
Though few do him regard;
He laughs to see them going down,
That have put down his Lord.
A gallant crew, stir up the fire,
The other winter tale,
Welcome, Christmas, ‘tis our desire
To give thee more spic’d ale.
He became the personification of everything the British people held dear about Christmas.
1616 AD Ben Jonson presented his play Christmas, his Masque at the Court of King James. In this the Season of Christmas was represented by an actor, and his entourage were the attributes of the season personified.
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 and appeared regularly in Punch. 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. Many older people still refer to him as ‘Father Christmas’ rather than Santa Claus.
© Anna Franklin, abstracted from Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear, 2010