I'm sure you've run into the fellow above this holiday season. I don't mean whoever is behind that fake beard, but who he represents. You've seen him on Christmas cards, sitting on to top of a pine tree, on yours or your neighbors' lawn, in advertisements, in animated TV specials, and in the flesh at the mall or department store. Santa Claus, or course. He's a familiar figure, a figure you may even have a bit of affection for...Unless you're devoutly religious, in which case you may just hate his guts. After all, Christmas is a religious holiday, a devout holiday, a sacred
holiday. Or should be. How in the world did this fat buffoon in the garish outfit come to represent it? Well, whether you like Santa or hate Santa, the answer lies in the odd, contradictory nature of Christmas itself.
As the first syllable would indicate, Christmas is ostensibly a celebration of Christ's birth. Except the two New Testament writers who describe the event, Matthew and Luke, say nothing about it taking place on December 25. The other two Gospel writers, Mark and John, don't even mention it, figuring the reader is smart enough to know that in order for a man to die on a cross, he has to have been born in the first place. Paul? He sent out a lot of letters, but not one of them was a Christmas card. Nobody back then sent out Christmas cards. How could they? The holiday didn't exist and wouldn't exist for another three centuries. Before we can figure out where Santa came from, we first have to figure out where Christmas
According to most scholars, there was a Christmas before Christmas, a Germanic pagan winter festival called Yule, basically designed to cheer people up during the long, dark days of December, and offer them hope that the sun would some day return. Fourth century Christians (as well as their sponsor, the newly-baptized Roman Empire) basically co-opted Yule (and, of course, the Yule log) partly to convert the many pagans still running around, and partly because the Christians themselves could use some cheering up during the long, dark days of December.
I'm sure some of you will regard the above paragraph as so much revisionist history. Well, it wasn't secular humanist college professors ensconced in ivory towers that first expressed skepticism about the religious origins of Christmas, but Protestant reformers, particularly those we now call Puritans. Beginning in the 17th century, they downplayed, debunked, and downright dumped on Christmas. The contempt for both the holiday and the sinful practice of people letting down their hair and enjoying themselves, was transported across the Atlantic on the Mayflower to the New World, where it took root. Boy, did it take root! It was banned in New England, just as it had been earlier banned by Oliver Cromwell in Old England. Both bans had been lifted by the beginning of the 17th century, but for the next one hundred years, Christmas was treated as an embarrassment in Protestant countries. Celebrate if you must, but do it behind closed doors and don't shove your tidings-and-comfort-of-joy lifestyle down our throats! Meanwhile, the long December nights remained as dark as ever.
For party animals things began looking up in the 19th century, during, oddly enough, the Victorian Era. Charles Dickens (who I talked about in the previous post) helped popularize the expression "Merry Christmas" and it did indeed become more merry. All the festive holiday traditions were taken out of the closet and dusted off. Decorations, carols, ornaments, desserts, wrapping paper, mistletoe, the necking that took place under the mistletoe, and finally the giving of gifts all gained in popularity during this time. Christmas was well on its way to becoming the glamorous holiday it is today. Now all what was needed was a symbol. Sure, there was the Nativity, but that was best saved for religious observation. As Christmas became more fun (as well as secular) you needed a representation of that fun. A mascot, even.
There were several contenders. Chief among them was the Germanic Christkind, sometimes a cherub, sometimes a beautiful angel, who broke into people's houses in the middle of the night and delivered presents. The Brits had Father Christmas, who at first didn't deliver presents but changed his mind after he found Christkind breathing down his neck. Seeing that the eastern part of what is now the United States was once part of the British Empire, you'd think Father Christmas would be a mascot on this side of the pond, too. But not everybody in the Thirteen Colonies was English. There were German immigrants, whose Christkind ended up being Kris Kringle. And in New York City, formally called New Amsterdam, there were the Dutch...
Now, you'd think if the Dutch were to go looking for a Christmas mascot, they'd start it Holland, where there's plenty of snow and ice in December, if Hans Brinker
is to be believed. But no, they went south of Holland. Way, way south of Holland, to Asia Minor, today Modern Turkey. It was there that a man named Nicholas held the religious office of bishop, and, after he died, became a saint. But there's plenty of saints. Why make this particular one the mascot for Christmas? Some say it's because miracles have been attributed to him, but that's how you become a saint in the first place! I suspect it has a lot to do with his feast day, December 6, not quite two weeks before Christmas. The Dutch merely let him hang around for a while. Now, of course, these Dutch speak Dutch, and in their language, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas
. Dutch immigrants brought the idea to America, where he became the aforementioned Santa Claus. The now Americanized mascot caught on pretty quickly (though he was often still referred to as Saint Nicholas.) Washington Irving mentions him in 1809 in his first book A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty
(written under the pseudonym "Diedrich Knickerbocker".) However, Santa got his biggest P.R. boost fourteen years later when a professor of Ancient Greek, Clement Moore, wrote a poem titled A Visit From Saint Nicholas
. That's the one that begins with:
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads
a mouse? As if an unobtrusive rodent living under the same roof as humans is the exception rather than the rule? They were pretty blase about pest control in 1823.)
Here's Santa up close and personal:
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,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread
Pretty vivid imagery there, and he seems much more approachable than that fellow with the halo in the picture above (people with halos are almost never
The next person to leave his mark on Santa was Thomas Nast, an illustrator and political cartoonist best known for creating the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey (but don't blame him for the actual parties.) The picture above is from a then-new edition of Moore's poem. Physically he looks like the Santa we know, but where's the white fur trim? And what is that on his head, a nest? An adjustment was clearly in order.
Subsequent illustrators looked back across the sea at Father Christmas. Much thinner than the U.S. mascot, but he had the right wardrobe.
The Santa we know was almost complete. It was left to just one more man to put on the finishing touches.
Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976), the son of Scandinavian immigrants, took up commercial illustration and quickly rose to the top of his profession. In 1931, Sundblom was commissioned by the Coca-Cola company to do a series of Christmas-related advertisements that ran from 1931 to 1965. It was one of the most popular ad campaigns ever, and I'm sure you seen them here and there even if you were born long after 1965:
I love his style.
Sundblom did a lot of other things
as well. For instance, if you've ever ate a bowl of oatmeal between
1957 and 2012 you probably remember this guy:
Ironically, the above company is now owned by Coke's arch-rival Pepsi.
But this is Christmas, and I want to leave you with one final Sundblom image from 1972, the last he ever did before he retired:
Whatever gets you through those long December nights.