The character of Santa Claus is believed to descend from Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who lived in the 4th century. Historians set his birth at between 250 and 270 in Lycia, present-day southwestern Turkey, and estimate that he became the Bishop of Myra around 315. Curiously, the Church celebrates his birthday not on December 6, but on the day of his death. Saint Nicholas was popular in his lifetime, and had the reputation of being a miracle maker. His most famous achievement was the resurrection of three young boys killed and placed in a salting tub by a butcher. The episode led him to be regarded as the patron saint of schoolchildren.
Nicholas, a Peripatetic Saint
At the end of the 11th century, Saint Nicholas’s relics were transferred to Bari, in southern Italy. His cult began in Northern Europe at the time of the Crusades, particularly in Lorraine, of which he became the patron saint in the Middle Ages. He is credited with one particular miracle: liberating the city of Nancy, capital of the Duchy of Lorraine, from its Burgundian assailants. The Basilica of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, located about ten kilometers from Nancy, was dedicated to him in the 15th century. Today, one can still admire the stained-glass depiction of Nicholas carrying a bishop’s cross and miter. The city of Port – now called Saint-Nicolas-de-Port and renowned for its fairs and markets – extended Saint Nicholas’s worship well beyond the Duchy, to Germany, Belgium, Poland and the Netherlands, where he became known as Sinterklaas.
The cult of Saint Nicholas did not escape Europe’s religious upheavals. In Germany, where the Reformation led by the monk Martin Luther banned saint worship, Nicholas was replaced by ChristKindl (Christ Child). Even as Saint Nicholas was “chased away” from the Lutheran Protestant regions, he was welcomed in the Netherlands, despite its Calvinist majority. The Feast of Saint Nicholas painting – executed in the 17th century by Jan Steen – for the first time depicts a family celebrating the Feast of Saint Nicholas. A child weeps after receiving a stick as a present, while a little girl lovingly cuddles a miniature of the bishop saint the way she would a doll.
When a group of Dutch Calvinists fleeing religious persecution in the 17th century set sail for the New World, they carried the legends and exploits of Sinterklaas with them. These immigrants, founders of Nieuw Amsterdam (the future New York), introduced Sinterklaas in their new homeland. Yet his Dutch name was distorted and Americanized into Santa Claus. By the end of the 18th century, at the time of the 1776 Revolution, Santa Claus became the symbol of American resistance against the British occupying forces! Saint Nicholas was “borrowed” from this Dutch tradition – introduced in America by the earliest Dutch immigrants – for political reasons: as a kind of antidote to Christmas, which was celebrated by the English enemy and by the British colonial monarchy. His new fame spread all over the New World.
A Larger-Than-Life Santa Claus
More than a century had passed when the writer Washington Irving published A History of New York in 1809, comically told by the make-believe historian Dietrich Knickerbocker (Washington Irving’s pen name). The book helped popularize the character of Santa Claus and give him an unprecedented profile. By telling the humorous story of the founding of New York, Washington Irving was the first to make the literary transition from Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus. Irving’s book recounts the odyssey of a Dutch crew leaving Amsterdam in the 17th century for America. Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas by his Dutch name, is their ship’s figurehead, protecting them from the storm.
The saint appears in the dreams of a sleeping sailor’s and expresses the wish to see the Dutch immigrants settle and build a city on the island of Manna-hata (Manhattan). In exchange, Sinterklaas promises to visit them every year on his airborne sleigh and slip down the chimneys of this newly founded city to deliver gifts to the children. A few years later, in December 1823, Clement Clark Moore, a professor at New York’s Episcopalian seminary, published a poem intended for his own children – called Twas the Night Before Christmas – in The Sentinel, a New York state newspaper. He presented an as yet unseen Santa Claus, a cheery fellow with ruddy cheeks: “He had a broad face and a little round belly; That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly! He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”
In this poem inspired by the folk legends of the German, Dutch and Norwegian communities settled in the United States, one no longer recognizes the austere Bishop of Myra! The poem was an instant success and played a key role in introducing a portly and larger-than-life Santa Claus to the collective American imagination. While the color of his outfit was nowhere mentioned, this would change during the second half of the 19th century. Meanwhile in England, where he was known as Old Father Christmas – no doubt inspired by the Scandinavian god Odin – Santa Claus was often dressed in green, and wore a holly crown over his head. That pagan figure appeared in numerous Victorian images.
Thomas Nast, the American Daumier
Before long, countless American artists were inspired by the character. The most famous among them was Thomas Nast (1840-1902), a caricaturist of German descent and godfather of the American cartoon. It was he who created the symbol of the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, and who popularized the figure of Uncle Sam.
Nast would complete Nicholas-Santa Claus’s transformation for Harper’s Weekly magazine: Between 1862 and 1886, Nast created thirty-three Santa Claus drawings. During the Civil War, a Nast drawing from 1862 depicted Nicholas as a peddler wearing the colors of the American flag; published on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, he became the hero of the Unionists (anti-slavery Yankees). In President Lincoln’s words, Santa Claus became “his best recruiting agent!” The magazine cover showed Santa Claus looking sad as he watched the young soldiers part with their families, and handed out gifts to Unionist men.
Nast’s style later evolved, and Santa Claus became less austere. He gained weight, grew a beard, wore fur and kept his peddler’s bag on his shoulder: “a right jolly old elf.” Nast immortalized this transformation in his best portraits, sometimes depicting his own children and his Morristown family home in New Jersey. On a Christmas cover of Harper’s Weekly, he depicted himself in front of the fireplace, holding a long mother-of-pearl (meerschaum) pipe that was very popular at the time in Germany and the Netherlands. And in December 1884, merrily merging tradition and modern life, Nast depicted Santa speaking on the telephone, the brand new invention of the period!
In 1885, Santa Claus left the streets of New York for the North Pole, a region still wrapped in mystery. During the 1840s and 1850s, a series of Arctic explorations had piqued the public’s interest in this region. The following year, the writer George Webster revived Nast’s idea, noting that Santa Claus’ toy factory and home were buried in the snows of the North Pole the rest of the year.
In parallel, Louis Prang (1824-1907), the man who introduced Christmas cards to the United States in 1875, also took part in developing the “cliché” by depicting Santa in a snowy and icy setting, wearing a big coat with a hood lined with white fur, boots and a cloth bag for toys. The former Bishop Nicholas, deprived of his miter and cross, was completely unrecognizable as a jolly grandfather with a long white beard.
Coca-Cola Claims Ownership of Santa Claus
The origin of the red color of Santa Claus’ outfit is a mystery. Nast’s illustrations in Harper’s Weekly were printed in black and white. Nast’s Santa Claus clothes were neither red (as Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus would later be), nor green (as those of Saint Nicholas often were), but rather brown with short bristles, in accordance with the description contained in Clement Clark Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (circa 1880), more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas: “He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot; And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot”
In 1875, Louis Prang, the father of the American Christmas card, printed a series of postcards with a Santa Claus in a red costume. Did he invent the costume’s red color? Probably not, but he is the one remembered in history. In 1931, Coca-Cola decided to broaden its market to children. The Atlanta-based company asked Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator of Swedish descent, to depict a paunchy, smiling Santa Claus, dressed in red, with ruddy cheeks and an elfish look. Sundblom drew on American illustrations and those of one of his compatriots, Jenny Nyström (1854-1946). Beginning in 1881, she had published postcards depicting Nordic elves that also followed the Saint Nicholas tradition. Her paintings remain popular in Sweden today, where they are reprinted every year.
Above all, Coca-Cola’s red and white colors determined those of Santa Claus’ contemporary uniform. As for France, it adopted the Santa Claus theme by giving him nice big cheeks, a red costume and a sack filled with toys, and officially renaming him le Père Noël. In the aftermath of World War II, the figure of Santa Claus became as well established as Coca-Cola and chewing gum, proving that its popularity was tied to America’s prestige in France in the immediate postwar period.
Article published in the December 2015 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.