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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.