Santa Claus wasn’t always what we think of today

Thomas Nast’s “Merry Old Santa Claus.”

Everybody in the western world has the same image of Santa Claus as a rotund, rosy cheeked, jolly old elf that adorns pretty much every piece of secular Christmas merchandise. But prior to the 1860s, old St. Nick had a very different look.

St. Nicholas was traditionally depicted as skinny and bald in traditional red bishop’s robes — a far cry from the morbidly obese chap that impossibly squeezes his way down our chimneys every Christmas Eve.

St. Nicholas of Myra was a fourth-century Christian bishop, who became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker because of his good works. He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people and children. He is also known for secret gift giving, which is his only real connection to modern day Christmas (except, perhaps, for the brewers and the merchants).

Of course, being a medieval saint means very little is known about his life leaving him open to interpretation, which makes him the perfect vessel on which to imprint the Santa mythology.

A 15th-century depiction of St. Nicholas of Myra.

Interestingly, in Europe he has the far more secular name of Father Christmas in England, Pere Noel in France and Babbo Natale in Italy. The German Weihnachtsmann is relatively recent and has no religious or folklore roots (Krampus, however, is a completely different kettle of fish and way more gloriously gruesome). Father Christmas is rooted in traditional English folklore, probably evolved from the Old English god Woden. He represented the spirit of good cheer but is not known for bearing gifts.

So where did fat Santa come from? Appropriately, given current health data, he is an American invention. The Coca-Cola company’s website claims to have invented him in the 1930s as part of an advertising campaign, but the real roots are to be found during the Civil War. The political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who was a Lincoln-loving, abolition-advocating, Union-supporting Republican from New York published his first Santa on Jan. 3, 1861 in Harper’s Weekly. Lest anyone be confused where his allegiance lay, Santa was dressed in stars and stripes and was shown visiting Union troops on the front lines.

Nast produced a multi-framed illustration of “Santa Claus and His Works” in the Dec. 29, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Other artists had drawn him, but Nast popularized the image that is now standard. He produced 33 Christmas drawings for Harper’s from 1863 through 1886, and Santa is shown or alluded to in all but one.

In 1881, Nast drew “Merry Old Santa Claus,” cementing the image of the fat man in a red suit (it had previously also been yellow and green) with his arms full of toys. While it looks like Santa and a bag of toys, Ryan Hyman, a curator at the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum, which is located in Nast’s hometown of Morristown, New Jersey, argues in a Smithsonian article that Nast is still using Nick for propaganda purposes. The sack is actually an army backpack and Nast is pointing his pen at the government’s indecisiveness over raising wages for enlisted members of the military.

Nast’s drawings also created key parts of the modern Santa mythology, including a home at the North Pole and toy workshop with elf slaves … sorry, assistants.

Haddon Sundblom’s first Santa illustration for Coca-Cola.

To be fair to Coca-Cola, they did play a major part in commercializing Santa and making him the hub of a truly capitalist Christmas. According to their website (and yes, there is a special section just for Coke and Santa), the company began advertising in popular magazines in 1931. Archie Lee, the D’Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted a wholesome Santa. Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create a “real” Santa, not just someone dressed up in a costume.

Sundblom drew inspiration from Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Moore’s description of the “little old driver so lively and quick,” was excessively wholesome for someone breaking into your house, all “twinkled” and “merry,” whose “cheeks were like roses” with a “nose like a cherry.”

From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola used Santa for all manner of ads, as well as posters, calendars and plush toys. There is no word on if the “right jolly old elf” got royalties.

So, there you have it. Fat Santa is as American as apple pie, or at least as the cookies he consumes in frightening amounts. Although, to be fair, a plump lap is probably more comfy to sit on at the mall than a skinny medieval bishop’s, while you desperately hope the kids will behave just long enough for that one click of the camera.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

This story first ran in the Dec. 3, 2021 Art of Living section of The Beaumont Enterprise.

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