PCOer Chris Madden writes:
The exact origins of Father Christmas (as opposed to Santa Claus) are lost in time: he was probably a pagan personification of midwinter, who put in an appearance around the solstice on December 21st. Indeed, he may well have been one and the same person as the old bearded man with the scythe and hour-glass, Father Time, who turns up at New Year, a week or so after Christmas is over (and once he’s slept off the sherry and mince pies). Father Christmas was a central character in Britain’s seasonal festivities long before Santa Claus joined in the celebrations. Santa didn’t really participate in the fun until the nineteenth century. However, once Santa put in an appearance he soon pushed the original Father Christmas into the background. Why? Because Santa was an American. Or, to be more precise, an American descendant of Turkish ancestry.
The original Santa Claus was Nicholas, a 4th century bishop of Myra in Turkey, who reputedly handed out gifts to children. (Very suspicious, if he were around nowadays there’d be a heavy police file and, possibly, an electronic tag around his ankle.) The bishop remained relatively obscure for fifteen hundred years or more until his star suddenly rose in the nineteenth century.
St Nicholas entered popular culture in the United States when, in 1809, the novelist Washington Irving (who wrote Rip Van Winkle) penned a satire on the Dutch culture of New York (a city that had a strong Dutch element in its history – so much so that it was originally called New Amsterdam). In his satire he referred to Saint Nicholas by his Dutch name of Santa Claus and portrayed him somewhat like an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.
A few years later, 1822, Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at a theology college in New York and the son of the Bishop of New York and his heiress wife (the family were so rich that the college at which Moore taught was built on their own estate), read Irving’s book and published a poem based on the Santa Claus character: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” The poem became a great hit: you may be familiar with it yourself (or at least with its opening lines). It was in this poem that Santa first acquired his reindeer. Before this he had to make do, somewhat bizarrely, with an eight-legged flying horse.
At this point the Santa industry went stratospheric. With the poem as inspiration, the cartoonist Thomas Nast started to draw the first of what would eventually be more than two thousand illustrations for Harper’s Weekly magazine depicting Santa. Nast’s early depictions of Santa showed a rotund gent of quite serious demeanor, becoming more jovial over the passing years. This Santa was closer to Washington Irving’s version than the usual stern bishop of previous tradition. Nast also gave Santa his headquarters at the North Pole and his army of toiling elves.
Here’s Nast’s first depiction of Santa, from Harper’s Weekly of 3rd January 1863 (which also included another, much smaller illustration of Santa by Nast)
Judging by this illustration you may think that Santa’s wearing a rather festive outfit, festooned with Christmas stars – however, if you look at the original drawing you’ll see that he’s sitting beneath a Union flag. The suit – with its starry jacket and striped trousers – represents this flag. If the illustration had been in colour the jacket would have been blue (I bet you assumed that it was red), reflecting the colour of the ground behind the stars on the flag, while the trousers would be red and white stripes. Nast was essentially a political cartoonist – and in political cartoons wrapping a character in a flag to signify their allegiance is quite common.
At the time that Nast created the illustration the American civil war was in progress. Nast was on the Unionist side. The puppet in Santa’s hand bears an uncanny resemblance to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate states of America whom the Unionists, or Federal states, were fighting.
It was essentially Nast’s imagination that gave us the Santa that we know today – except, that is, for his red coat with white trim. Santa reputedly wears a red and white outfit because they are the corporate colours of the Coca Cola Corporation, who enlisted Santa to promote their fizzy drink in the 1930s. The Coke ads were created by an American commercial artist of Swedish ancestry, Haddon Sundblom , who modelled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerfully rotund features.
So it is that Santa Claus doesn’t actually come from the North Pole but from New York city, and he doesn’t date from the birth of Christianity two thousand years ago but from the early days of capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century.