Of course, we’re talking about Santa Claus!
Ask any child who the president is or what a sasquatch is, and you may receive a blank stare or two. But bring up Santa and every kid (young and old) can tell you all about him, from the house at the North Pole and flying reindeer to the red suit and white beard. There may be no more easily identified figure on the planet, with the possible exception of Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald and that Jesus fella. (Not that “He” has any room in this story anymore.)
Anyway, since it ’tis the season, here’s a few interesting points on how the the current incarnation of Santa Claus sort of came to be. Like any centuries-old story, there’s been numerous influences and changes along the way, and if you have lots of time, there’s plenty more to sift through than the few short notes here. This barely scratches the surface!
- One thing that’s generally agreed upon is that the legend generally starts with a real person: St. Nicholas, who was born around 280 A.D. in Lycia, which is in modern-day Turkey. From most accounts, he was a very generous and kind soul who liked to give gifts to the less fortunate, especially at night so that his identity could remain a secret. (Much good that did!) He was an extremely pious man, who was imprisoned for five years due to his Christian beliefs. He eventually was freed, and went on to become Bishop of Myra, basically doing a lot of good works until his death on Dec. 6, 343.
- Father Christmas first appeared on the European winter scene in the 17th century, a personification of the Christmas holiday and yule season. He was a much younger and more svelte figure, who wore flowing green robes trimmed with white fur, and of course, gave gifts. In the original Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present is supposed to be Father Christmas.
- Sinterklaas is the celebration of the Dutch feast of St. Nicholas, the personification of which is the general basis for Santa Claus as we know him. In settling New Amsterdam — aka New York City — the Dutch are credited with bring “Sinter Klaas” himself to the New World. Author Washington Irving mentions the Dutch version of the character in his A History of New York in 1809.
- St. Nicholas gains more acclaim in the United States with the publication of the poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” which was drawn from Irving’s work and is generally attributed to Clement C. Moore, although there is debate about that. Interestingly, if you read the poem closely, nowhere does it say that St. Nick is a big fat guy — quite the opposite, as he’s described repeatedly as “little” and as an “elf.” (Although he does that have jelly belly.)
- The iconic Santa we know really takes shape thanks to the imagination and vision of two artists: Thomas Nast, whose versions of Santa that he drew for Harper’s Weekly in the 1860s are the core of our current image; and Haddon Sundbloom, who in 1930, refined Nast’s version with characteristics from the Moore poem in order to create a character used to sell Coca-Cola. And yes, it’s not a coincidence that Santa and Coke both wear red and white.
You pretty much know the rest of the story from there.
As I mentioned above, the Santa Claus we’ve come to know has a long and incredibly rich history, one that no doubt will continue to evolve going forward. Who knows, in a few hundred years, he could be a skinny guy in a green suit again, but flying a rocket sled driven by reindeer-elf centaurs with frickin’ lasers on their heads … so you better continue to be good for goodness’ sake!
Enjoy the holiday, all!