The emergence of Santa Claus in the U.S. is largely owing to the influence of Dutch immigration. The Dutch shared a long-held devotion to the 4th century patron Saint Nicholas, renowned for his charity and generosity to children.
But by 1810, when artist Alexander Anderson drew a picture of the saint plunking treats into stockings hung on fireplace mantles, a new interpretation of the saint began to emerge. In 1823, an instantly popular poem surfaced called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (now known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). Its creation is most often attributed to poet Clement Clark Moore, though the drawings of artist Thomas Nast and writer Washington Irving's early mentions of the jolly benefactor's exploits also play a large role. And as we well know, the poem paints a very vivid picture of Ol' St. Nick--not as a slender clergyman in a flowing ephod, but instead as a jolly, stout, dimpled old man with a beard white as snow.
Credit for the costume we now associate with our image of Santa Claus can be attributed to Thomas Nast. A pioneering political cartoonist (one of the first to introduce political themes in comic illustrations), Nast drew Santa Claus in his crimson suit and jolly cap delivering uplifting gifts to troops during the Civil War. Readers appreciated the hope and inspiration these images, which appeared in Harper's Weekly, provided. The idea that someone somewhere was looking out for their loved ones during battle, perhaps even giving the gifts they themselves would have delivered if it were possible, was welcome and cherished. After the Civil War, the crimson suit with hat, belt and boots became an enduring tradition. Nast, for his work, is still credited with planting the frontier's flag for political cartoonists everywhere. Today, his originals are highly prized and very valuable, especially those which feature Santa Claus.
After the propagation of the Nast illustrations and the famed poem, Santa's acclaim snowballed until he became one of the most globally recognized symbols of the season. Here are just a few of his international titles:
- Sinter Klaus: Amsterdam
- Shengdan Laoren or Dun Che Lao Ren: China
- Babbo Natale: Italy
- Sinter Klaas: Holland
- Weihnachtsmann, Kriss Kringle or Christkindl: Germany
- Hoteiosho: Japan
- Jul Tomte: Sweden
- Pere Noel or le Petit: France
- Julinisse: Denmark
- Hagios Nikolaos: Greece