Santa Claus in his modern form. Artist: Thomas Nast.

SANTA CLAUS

Original medium: folklore
First Appeared: antiquity
Creators: inapplicable
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Conventional wisdom has it that the Santa Claus legend began with St. Nicholas, a 4th century bishop of Myra (located in what is now Turkey). Actually, most of the legend's features, such as the …

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… white beard, the reindeer-powered conveyance, the mysterious home in the frozen north, etc., go back to pagan times (as does the Christmas holiday itself — people have been having big celebrations on or near the Winter Solstice since The Flintstones were young, and many of the holiday's accoutrements come down to us from prehistory). In all probability, the historical St. Nicholas never wore fur, saw snow, or heard of reindeer.

Other than the basic elements of the name (Dutch origin), the gifts (attributed to Nicholas himself), and the association with the Christmas holiday (he originally visited on St. Nicholas Day, December 6), most of the modern American view of Christmas's patron saint (secularized tho he may be) has its roots in popular entertainment from the 1820s to the 1930s.

It was in 1823 that Clement Moore's famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nick" (better known by its first line, "'Twas the night before Christmas") was first published. It gave us the most detailed description of the "jolly old elf" (to use Moore's words) to date. That's where the number of reindeer was established as eight, and where they were given their names. The "round little belly" came from there, as did the entrance through the chimney (tho Santa had been known previously, in some versions, to drop gifts down a chimney). Curiously, Moore, who would rather have been famous for his scholarly achievements than what he considered trivial fluff, didn't allow the poem to be connected with his name in print until 1844.

The modern appearance of Santa began with Thomas Nast, America's premiere cartoonist of his generation. From the 1860s to the '80s, he drew a special cartoon every year for the Christmas edition of Harper's Weekly, the first American magazine to achieve national circulation. Nast's first depiction of Santa appeared in the edition dated January 3, 1863 — apparently, it had not yet become media practice to regard Christmas as old news from December 26 on. He did it at the personal request of President Abraham Lincoln, to show Santa visiting U.S. troops in the war zone. Aside from fully visualizing Clement Moore's version (tho the face is said to have been based on Nast's own), Nast established Santa's North Pole headquarters, along with the legions of elves at work making toys, in his 1885 cartoon.

Contemporary with Nast was St. Nicholas magazine, where (among many other icons of children's literature) Palmer Cox's Brownies rose to prominence. St. Nicholas (which was named after Santa, but there the connection ends) was published by Scribner's from 1873 to 1939.

All this time, Santa generally favored brown fur, but could be depicted in any colors. In 1885, publisher Louis Prang of Boston, who popularized printed Christmas cards, depicted him in a red suit for what may have been the first time. That version slowly began to take over, and the now-standard image (red suit with white fur trim) emerged in the early 20th century. That image solidified to rock-like hardness when, starting in 1931, The Coca-Cola Company launched its annual Santa-themed advertising campaign, attempting to soften the mid-winter slump in soft drink sales. Haddon Sundblom, a commercial cartoonist in their employ, created Coke's version of Santa, which eventually came to dominate completely. It was also this campaign that established red (Santa's suit) and green (the Coke bottle he's drinking from) as the Christmas colors.

The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was added in 1939, also as a result of advertising/promotion — Rudolph started out as a commercial toon, like Reddy Kilowatt or Tony the Tiger, promoting Montgomery Ward department stores. What keeps Rudolph from being fully a part of the standard Santa pantheon is the fact that he's copyrighted and trademarked.

By the time he was standardized, Santa had long since become ubiquitous. Animators at Warner Bros., MGM, Terrytoons and everywhere else used him — in fact, he was practically a regular character at the early Disney, appearing the same in Christmas cartoons year after year. He's guest-starred with hundreds if not thousands of toons, from Felix the Cat to Wonder Woman. Several comic book publishers have starred him in annuals — Dell's Santa Claus Funnies (1942-61), with early issues by Walt Kelly, is particularly notable. Both his daughter, Jingle Belle, and his granddaughter, Chrissie Claus, have been comic book characters. He's been the star of TV specials, feature films, novels, and every other form of entertainment.

And will no doubt continue to be for a long time to come. Pretty good, for a small-town bishop from Turkey.

— DDM

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Text ©2002-03 Donald D. Markstein. Art: Santa Claus is in the public domain, and so are the cartoons of Thomas Nast.