Will the Real Santa Claus Please Stand Up?

December 13th, 2013

We always think of Santa Claus as an incredibly old man—positively ancient—but the fact is, he’s exactly 150-years-old, born in 1863. Indeed, we might be thinking of Santa’s predecessor St. Nicholas, who is far older, believed to have been a Turkish Greek bishop in the 300s. But the first European winter gift-bringer is even more of a geezer, going back to ancient Germanic paganism and the Norse god Odin. When he wandered the earth, the deity disguised himself as a bearded old man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and cloak and carrying a traveler’s staff. He looked a lot like Gandalf the Gray in “Lord of the Rings.”

Even in the early days, Santa had his vices.

The gift-bringer showed up during the 12-day winter festival known as Yule, where it was a tradition to burn a whole tree, from bottom up. (This evolved into the smaller “Yule log” we know today.) Children would leave hay in their shoes for Odin’s eight-legged horse and find it replaced with treats the next day. As Europe became Christianized, these beliefs were absorbed into the Christian faith, and St. Nicholas, celebrated on December 6, was bestowed with the gift-bringer mythology.

As the legend goes, Nicholas of Myra, located in Asia Minor at the time, was born a very rich man, who eventually gave away every penny he had. His neighbor, on the other hand, was so poor that he couldn’t even afford the dowries to marry off his three daughters. When the first daughter reached marrying age, Nicholas snuck up the roof of the family’s house and dropped a bag of gold down the chimney, which fell into a stocking hung by the fireplace to dry. He did this again for the second daughter. The father finally caught him the third time, and humble Nicholas asked him to keep it a secret, as he wasn’t looking for praise.

Top: A religious icon of Saint Nicholas of Myra, believed to be a generous 4th-century bishop in Asia Minor. Above: Green-coated Father Christmas emerged in Renaissance-era England as the embodiment of the holiday.

Top: A religious icon of Saint Nicholas of Myra, believed to be a generous 4th-century bishop in Asia Minor. Above: Green-coated Father Christmas emerged in Renaissance-era England as the embodiment of the holiday.

After his death and sainthood, Nicholas grew popular, particularly in Holland, where he was known as Sinterklaas, the protector of navigation, marriage, and children. As time went on, he became more and more similar to the bearded wandering Odin. The tall and thin Saint Nicholas (or Nikolaus) rode a horse and carried a bishop’s staff. In the winter, Sinterklaas delivered children presents through the chimney; good kids would find presents in their shoes, while bad children would be punished. But St. Nick hardly ever did the dirty work himself. In cultures all over Europe, he often had a beastly horned and long-tongued companion, such as Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, or Cert, who would capture and beat bad children.

This cheerfully generous and cuddly grandpa served as a comforting Santa figure during the Depression and World War II.

Proponents of the Protestant Reformation, starting in 1517, were eager to abolish the Catholic saints from Christian worship—but the Dutch were unwilling to give up their beloved Sinterklaas. Thanks to Martin Luther’s campaign against Saint Nicholas, a good deal of European Protestants simply adopted the cherubic blond-haired blue-eyed Christ Child, or Christkindl, as the gift-bringer. Eventually, this character was absorbed into the St. Nicholas mythology, too, as “Kris Kringle” became another of his names.

In 15th-century England, “Nowell” or “Sir Christmas” emerged as the personification of Christmas, a man who delivered the story of Christ’s birth. By the 18th century, he evolved into a green-cloak-wearing gift-bringer known as “Father Christmas,” a kindly old gentleman full of good cheer, whom Puritans condemned for his Pagan roots. After all, Father Christmas was often depicted bringing the Yule tree, like Odin. The Puritans came to America hoping to establish a holy Christmas celebration free of Father Christmas or St. Nicholas, but the Dutch brought their Sinterklaas to New Amsterdam, now known as New York.

Belsnickel, one of St. Nicholas's helpers in the Germanic tradition, checked on children's behavior before Christmas. Here he carries switches in one hand and a feather tree in the other.

Belsnickel, one of St. Nicholas’s helpers in the Germanic tradition, checked on children’s behavior before Christmas. Here he carries switches in one hand and a feather tree in the other.

The Germans that settled Pennsylvania, known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, brought a Germanic version of the gift-bringer, spelled “Belsnickel” or “Pelznickel,” meaning “fur-Nicholas.” This short bearded man, thought to be one of Nicholas’s companions, dressed head-to-toe in fur, a long coat, and a droopy hat or hood. Often his face would be covered in soot, and he’d sometimes wear a mask that made him look similar to the horned and long-tongued Krampus. He was said to visit homes before Christmas to check up on the behavior of children, who would get candy, cakes, fruit, or nuts in exchange for singing or answering a question. Bad kids, of course, would get switched. Papier-mâché Belsnickel candy containers often depict him carrying a birch switch or feather tree, a Victorian-era artificial Christmas tree made of dyed goose feathers tied to wire branches.

Aside from Belsnickel, both Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas were generally depicted as tall, slender men. That all changed in 1809, when American writer Washington Irving published a parody of the Dutch community called “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” In his book, he described their patron saint Nicholas as a short, roly-poly Dutchman with elfin features who smoked a long, slender pipe and drove a wagon above the trees.

Inspired by "’Twas the Night Before Christmas," magazine illustrator Thomas Nast drew a chubby Old St. Nick in 1863 and gave him the name "Santa Claus."

Inspired by “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” magazine illustrator Thomas Nast drew a chubby Old St. Nick in 1863 and gave him the name “Santa Claus.”

An anonymous poem published in 1823, called “A Visit From St. Nicholas”—which has since been attributed to both Clement Clarke Moore and Henry Livingston Jr. and is more commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”—further solidified this vision of the gift-giver, who drove a magical sleigh led by eight reindeer and entered children’s homes through chimneys:

“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 laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, …”

But the fat man didn’t get the name “Santa Claus” until 1863 when Thomas Nast drew a series of illustrations for “Harper’s Weekly Magazine,” which ran until 1886. Nast, a man of Germanic heritage who may have been influenced by childhood stories of Belsnickel, gave his chubby little Santa a workshop, with a Christmas tree and stockings hanging on a fireplace. In England, this new red-wearing version of St. Nicholas soon melded with Father Christmas, who became an even more important figure for children. Children’s books were reissued with Santa Claus on the cover and in the title. Victorian manufacturers produced puzzles, board games, and jack-in-boxes with Santa themes. At the turn of the century, American illustrator J.C. Leyendecker furthered the image of a pudgy, red-suited Santa, as did Norman Rockwell, starting in the 1920s.

Famous illustrator Haddon Sundblom first painted Santa Claus for Coca-Cola in 1931. His tall, heavy red-suited grandpa set the standard for portraying Santa in the 20th century.

Famous illustrator Haddon Sundblom first painted Santa Claus for Coca-Cola in 1931. His tall, heavy red-suited grandpa set the standard for portraying Santa in the 20th century. (Via www.coca-colacompany.com)

An even more modern vision of Santa arrived in 1931, when Coca-Cola asked illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create an ad emphasizing that Coke was a drink for winter. He painted Santa as a tall, big-bellied, red-cheeked man with a fur-trimmed red coat, holding a glass of the soda. While it’s true that red and white are the Coca-Cola colors, it was already common to see Santa in red with white-fur trim. However, these ubiquitous ads made the costume standard. All the way through 1964, Sundblom continued to produce this wholesome Coke-drinking character, and his images popped up everywhere, on billboards, posters, calendars, store display, and plush dolls.

This cheerfully generous and cuddly grandpa served as a comforting figure during the Depression and World War II. The sweet Santa mythology solidified with the 1939 Montgomery Ward children’s book about his ninth sleigh-puller, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” as well as the 1946 Gene Autry song, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and the 1947 movie, “Miracle on 34th Street,” about one Mr. Kris Kringle. Rushton’s soft-bodied Santa dolls with rubber heads, with or without a Coke bottle in hand, grew popular in the late 1950s, as they represented a return to hope and innocence. Santa’s likeness has adorned countless objects from ashtrays to light-up, blow-mold lawn ornaments, and cocoa mugs to novelty brooches with a red light for his nose.

As early as 1919, American tobacco companies like Murad created ads showing Santa trading his pipe for cigarettes.

As early as 1919, American tobacco companies like Murad created ads showing Santa trading his pipe for cigarettes.

Even in these early days, Santa had his vices. Always a fan of tobacco, Santa Claus was depicted endorsing dozens of cigarette brands, such as Murad, Chesterfields, Pall Malls, and Camels, in countless magazine advertisements. Because Sundblom’s artist circle included pin-up artists, it wasn’t long before Santa’s trademark fur-trimmed red coat and hat were painted on scantily clad bombshells by the likes of Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas. The idea that Santa just might have a sexual appetite came up in songs like 1952’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and 1953’s “Santa Baby,” the former sung by a naive child and the latter sung by a sultry Eartha Kitt. Racy ads for Mojud Hosiery in 1951 even showed Santa catching a glimpse up a woman’s skirt.

Despite what Fox News’ Megyn Kelly says, no one actually knows what skin color Nicholas of Myra had, or if he even existed in the first place. Except for the white beard, Old Saint Nick’s appearance has changed drastically throughout time. He generally took on the appearance of people in the communities who celebrated him—so because the American Santa mythology has roots in Dutch, German, and British traditions, he was traditionally portrayed as an old white man.

In 1951, American hosiery company Mojud produced this racy ad showing Santa losing a bit of his innocence. Click image for a larger version.

In 1951, American hosiery company Mojud produced this racy ad showing Santa losing a bit of his innocence. Click image for a larger version.

But that changed in 1943, when Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem—which had been threatened with a boycott over its racist hiring practices in the 1920s and ’30s—hired a black man to play Santa. In 1963, “Esquire” magazine provoked outrage and lost an estimated $750,000 in advertising after it put heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston on its cover in a Santa hat. In the 1960s, Rushton issued an African-American version of the Coke Santa doll. Then, in 1973, Teddy Vann produced a take on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” sung by his 5-year-old son, Akim, called “Santa Is a Black Man.” On the cover, Vann and his kid raise their fists in solidarity with the black-power movement.

After that, images of black Santa became more common and socially accepted, even though, as Slate’s Aisha Harris points out, most Santa iconography today still tends to fall in the “white-as-default” trap. Her solution: Make him a penguin. And why not? Looking at Santa’s history, it’s clear he can do and be anything we want him to.

"Esquire" magazine lost an estimated $750,000 in advertising after it put heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston on its cover in a Santa hat in 1963.

“Esquire” magazine lost an estimated $750,000 in advertising after it put heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston on its cover in a Santa hat in 1963.

For example, Santa hasn’t shied away from modern transportation modes—which obviously makes delivering presents around the world much easier. Santa’s taken air balloons, dirigibles, motorbikes, cars, airplanes, and even spaceships on his annual rounds. Still, as far as I know, Santa hasn’t embraced technology to the point Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher recommends: “If we’re looking to roll out a new, dominant cultural symbol of Christmas, then Santa Claus should be a giant self-aware computer who delivers presents using an army of antlered (possibly red-nosed) drones.”

Those who fret about the so-called “War on Christmas” would like to go back to that pudgy, twinkly-eyed old elf driving adorable reindeer invented by Victorians and reimagined by Coca-Cola. They don’t want to see any computers, penguins, or black men as the embodiment of the gentle and generous Christmas Spirit, much less a white Santa saddled with the vulgar humanity seen in cynical modern films like “The Santa Clause,” “Bad Santa,” and “Fred Claus.” But the truth is, their “good Santa” sold out to big tobacco and gave in to lecherous thoughts a long time ago.

The Evolution of Santa Claus

A_Odin

Swedish painter Georg von Rosen depicted "Odin the Wanderer," the ancient Pagan winter gift-giver, in 1886. (Via WikiCommons)

A_Odin

Swedish painter Georg von Rosen depicted "Odin the Wanderer," the ancient Pagan winter gift-giver, in 1886. (Via WikiCommons)

B_StNick1

Saint Nicholas of Myra is often portrayed in Catholic bishop garb. (Via OurOrthodoxLife.blogspot.com)

B_StNick3

Some scholars have drawn a link between Nicholas's bishop's staff and Odin's traveling staff. (Via MaggieMcNeill.wordpress.com)

B_StNickSinterklaas

This stone tablet on the historical Dam Square in Amsterdam shows a beardless "Sinter Claes" or "Sinterklaas." During a Christmas procession every year, the wall gets a new wreath. (Via TheOlivePress.eu)

B_StNickChristkindl

By 1908, Santa Claus was the dominant gift-giver, but he apparently still needed the Christ Child, or "Christkindl," to help him on his rounds, as this postcard shows. (Via Antiques.about.com)

C_Father1886

Father Christmas traditionally wore green, as seen in this Victorian postcard. (Via SantoSalgado.blogspot.com)

C_FatherABCBook1894

On the cover of a 1894 "Father Christmas" themed ABC book, illustrated by Alfred J. Johnson, the gift-giver prefers red. (Via Cambridge University Special Collections)

D_Belsnickel

The Pennsylvania Dutch brought St. Nicholas's helper Belsnickel to the United States. This candy container shows Belsnickel holding a feather tree.

D_BelsnickelCard

Belsnickel checked on children’s behavior before Christmas. Here he carries switches in one hand and a feather tree in the other.

E_Nast2

Inspired by “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” magazine illustrator Thomas Nast drew a chubby Old St. Nick in 1863 and gave him the name “Santa Claus.”

E_PostNastDiecutScrap

A Victorian-era German die-cut scrap shows a Nast-influenced Santa. Is that a doll, a child, or a helper in his sack?

E_PostNastGame2

Games about Santa Claus, like this 1898 board game by Parker Brothers, grew popular in the late 1800s.

E_PostNastRingGame1

This 1880s game contained a lithograph of Santa's face with a red 3-D nose and three rings to toss at it.

E_PostNastKringle

A 1904 children's book refers to Santa as "Kris Kringle," a name that comes from "Christ Child."

F_CokeSundblomBig

Famous illustrator Haddon Sundblom first painted Santa Claus for Coca-Cola in 1931. His tall, heavy red-suited grandpa set the standard for portraying Santa in the 20th century. (Via www.coca-colacompany.com)

F_CokeSundblom2

In 1959, Sundblom drew a shorter, more elvin Santa. This image also signifies a turning point in Coke's Christmas ads: Instead of focusing exclusively on Santa, they also featured kids, toys, and elves. (Via www.coca-colacompany.com)

G_ModernWar

In 1942, Santa Claus was enlisted for a World War II propaganda poster, produced by the Office for Emergency Management, War Production Board. (Via WikiCommons)

G_ModernRushton

Rushton made plush Santa dolls for Coca-Cola starting in the 1950s.

G_ModernDancingOrnaments

A jolly man, Santa is given to breaking into dance, according to these vintage Christmas ornaments.

G_ModernNoseLight

Novelty Santa brooches were common, starting in the 1950s. His red nose lights up when you pull the bell hanging from his beard.

H_SinSmoking3

As early as 1919, tobacco companies like Murad created ads showing Santa trading his pipe for cigarettes.

H_SinSmoke1

Pall Mall also showed Santa puffing away in this 1950 ad.

H_SinSmoking4

Santa throws cigarette packages indiscriminately in this Old Gold ad.

H_SinAshtray3

This cheerful ceramic Santa is meant to stand in a pile of cigarette ashes.

H_SinBeerDowFrench

Santa busts out the Dow beer in this 1927 ad, published in Quebec's "Mon Magazine."

H_SinBeer

In this 1947 Budweiser ad, Santa presents a feast. He's at least not holding the beer.

H_SinWomenBallantyne

For the December page of her 1956 "Artist's Sketchbook" calendar, Sundblom's colleague Joyce Ballantyne shows a sexy pin-up donning a Santa suit.

H_SinWomenElvgren1

Gil Elvgren, who was in Sundblom's Circle with Joyce Ballantyne, also painted fetching young women in Santa garb.

H_SinWomenPlayboy

In 1972, Haddon Sundblom himself—inventor of the innocent Coke Santa—painted a buxom woman partially covered by a Santa coat for the December issue of "Playboy."

I_BlackListon

No one was offended by the pin-up Santas, but “Esquire” magazine lost an estimated $750,000 in advertising after it put heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston on its cover in a Santa hat in 1963.

I_BlackRushton

In the 1960s, Rushton made an African-American version of its popular plush Santa doll.

I_BlackAkim

Five-year-old Akim Vann sang "Santa Claus Is a Black Man" for his father, Teddy Vann, in 1973.

J_TransitBalloon

Santa ditched the sleigh and reindeer for a hot-air balloon in this 1909 postcard.

J_TransitDirigible

But when the hot-air balloon didn't have enough room for all the presents, Santa took a dirigible.

J_TransitCar2

And sometimes, like this 1950 toy shows, Santa just took the car.

K_SpaceBook

Santa cheerfully greets visitors from outer space in the 1956 children's book, "Santa and the Space Men."

K_SpaceRocketSanta

Santa and Mrs. Claus enjoyed space travel themselves, according to these salt-and-pepper shakers.

K_SpaceRocketFunnies

Santa travels by rocket sleigh on the cover of a 1959 issue of the comic book, "Santa Claus Funnies." Could drones be far behind?

11 comments so far

  1. Anonypilgrim Says:

    Saint Nicholas was portrayed as something other than a white man early in his career. Please see the Icons of Saint Nicholas of Myra shown here: http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/post/69274797837/medievalpoc-various-artists-saint-nicholas

  2. tom61375 Says:

    Another Great Article Lisa! Happy Holidays

  3. GEORGE MOSES Says:

    I didn’t bother to read the article further after the first paragraph given its startling and mind-boggling inaccuracy! St. Nicholas is a Turkish Bishop???!!! The Turks are of the Islamic faith and do not have and never had bishops. The area was Greek Byzantine of Christian Orthodox faith. Heard of it? The turks were not even there but languishing somewhere in the middle of Asia with other nomadic tribes. Next, you the writer will be declaring that Starbucks proliferated the skinny latte throughout the western world thus causing insomnia. C’mon!

  4. Jim Says:

    St. Nicholas a Turkish bishop?? Quite incorrect. He was a Greek Orthodox Bishop in Asia Minor.

  5. AvangionQ Says:

    The story seems accurate enough, about as accurate as ancient history mixed with myth can get, but the images seem out of place for the story … would have been better to show images of some older gentlemen from the areas in turkey, for comparison …

  6. Bethany Says:

    However, St. Nicholas was born and lived in an area that is now Turkey, and for modern geographical purposes, calling him Turkish gives the people of today a better idea of his origins than “Asia Minor”.

  7. Worst conclusion of an article Says:

    The article was really interesting. A great history on the evolution of a cultural icon. But I am afraid that the author mistakes what the war in Christmas is about. No one is upset about the morality of Santa, his vices, or soft drink preferences. The war on Christmas has nothing to do with Santa, reindeer or materialism. The war on Christmas is a war again the messiah, Jesus.

  8. Andrew Says:

    You “War on Christmas” people really need to give it up. Christmas stopped being a religious holiday decades ago and there is no turning back that tide.

  9. GEORGE MOSES Says:

    Bethany not to refer to it as Asia minor or more correctly as the Byzantine Empire and rather refer to it as Turkish suits you and all those who studied a skewed and deficient western history curriculum at school. It seems such narrowed studies are still ingrained in you and others who have this one-eyed view of the world! Nonetheless have a Merry Christmas and a more erudite New Year.

  10. The real santa Claus is standing up Says:

    Nice article, but it seems the author, and especially the people that responded, fail to be missing one key point: Santa Claus means “unlimited giving”. This is the important theme, has been since the 300′s, and is a theme different cultures has adopted over the years. (China had the purest version). People want to complain that the Santa we have today is a waterdown version of the original. Then do something about it!! The Santa Cause is an attempt, by me, to redefine the image of Santa into a healthier tool for the sick and needy. The image belongs to the people, and is an energy source that has been created over hundreds of years. It is an untapped resource to help others. Santa was never a begger, despite Salvation Army’s attempt to make him one. He was a giver, and if “he was real” he would make sure his image was being used to help others. The other problem is children really believe in this image…I have seen it with my own eyes!! So, why does Santa have to be a lie for these children? If his image was being used correctly, billions of dollars would be given to charities globally. Personally, I could care less about the ancient history of Santa, I care more about the future. If you look at how Santa Claus is being used today (selling cars on TV, cookies in stores, and in sex videos) we have a chance to change it for the betterment of society. If anyone would like any more information, please feel free to ask. Apparently, I am the only one that is either aware of all this money on the table for charities, or the only person that thinks its important enough to get the campaign done. And just for the record: Coke does not own Santa, the people do. ITs about time they realize it.

  11. lou2606 Says:

    Saint Nicholas is buried in Kilkenny Ireland at Jerpoint Abbey, robbed from Turkey and brought to Ireland during the crusades


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.