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The Legend of Santa Claus

December 19, 2009

Christmas is just a few days away, and of course holiday celebrations in general play host to some of the richest characters that our culture loves. From a fairy that collects our baby teeth to a rabbit who delivers pastel colored eggs, holidays in America pull us back to childhood imagination. Christmas carries with it one of the most popular characters, the world over. He is a man whose roots reach almost 1,800 years back in history. A character we call Santa Claus.

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk who lived hundreds of years ago, named St. Nicholas. It is believed that he lived around 280 A.D. in Patara near Myra, which is now Turkey. St. Nicholas was deeply admired for his kindness and willingness to help others. It is said that he gave away his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside to help the poor and sick. One of the more popular legends about St. Nicholas is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery by their father by giving each girl a dowry to ensure their prospects for marriage. The story explains that he dropped money sacks into each sister’s stockings hanging from their windowsills or over their fireplace.

St. Nicholas’ popularity spread over many years and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. By the time of the Renaissance, he was the most popular saint in Europe and even after the Protestant Reformation discouraged the celebration of saints, he remained a popular figure with the public.

St. Nicholas made his introduction to American pop culture in the end of the 1700s. Newspapers in December of 1773 and 1774 announced gatherings of Dutch families to honor the anniversary of his death, which was celebrated on December 7. St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname Sinter Klaas evolved to American society as Santa Claus. Then in 1804 John Pintard distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas to the New York Historical Society at their annual meeting. The engraving’s background depicts images that are now central to Santa Claus themes, including stockings filled with toys. He made his deepest introduction to American society in 1809 in Washington Irving’s The History of New York when he dubbed Sinter Klaas the patron saint of New York.

Since gift giving was centered on children, Santa’s popularity was rejuvenated in the early 19th Century through advertising. Stores began featuring sales and special items for Christmas shopping in 1820 and soon after advertisements featured Santa Claus. Life size images became staples at any store until real Santas were used by the Salvation Army beginning in the 1890s.

Santa Claus’ modern image began taking shape in the mid to late 1800s. In 1822 Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote a long Christmas poem to his daughters, titled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”. It described Santa Claus as the jolly, older figure, including his supernatural ability to squeeze down chimneys to give presents. The poem helped popularize the celebration of Christmas Eve as a time when Santa waited for children to sleep before flying from house to house with gifts.

Then the popular icon was drawn by political cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1881 for Harper’s Weekly with a white beard, round belly, and cheery demeanor, borrowed from descriptions by Moore. Nast added the bright red suit trimmed with snow white fur, a workshop in the North Pole, elves, and Mrs. Claus. These descriptions were used by the Salvation Army when dressing their Santas, and has been used for stories, decorations, and our current pop culture adaptation.

Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was invented by The Coca-Cola Company or that Santa wears red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand. Historically, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising – White Rock Beverages used Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923. Further, the Coca-Cola advertising campaign had the effect of popularising the depiction of Santa as wearing red and white, in contrast to the variety of colours he wore prior to that campaign; red and white was originally given by Nast.

The image of Santa Claus as a benevolent character became reinforced with its association with charity and philanthropy, particularly by organizations such as the Salvation Army. Volunteers dressed as Santa Claus typically became part of fundraising drives to aid needy families at Christmas time.

The idea of a wife for Santa Claus may have been the creation of American authors, beginning in the mid-1800s. In 1889, the poet Katherine Lee Bates popularized Mrs. Claus in the poem "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride". The 1956 popular song by George Melachrino, "Mrs. Santa Claus", and the 1963 children's book How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas, by Phyllis McGinley, helped standardize and establish the character and role in the popular imagination.

In some images from the early 20th century, Santa was depicted as personally making his toys by hand in a small workshop like a craftsman. Eventually, the idea emerged that he had numerous elves responsible for making the toys, but the toys were still handmade by each individual elf working in the traditional manner.

The concept of Santa Claus continues to inspire writers and artists.

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