From the Picture of a Saint to the Icon of Christmas Commercials

The craziest time in the year has already started. Christmas trees with hundreds of lights, red and gold decorations and colourful glass balls are the kings of the majority of display windows. Furthermore, on every corner you probably bump into a guy wearing a red coat, bobble hat and long white beard. Some say that he’s heading to good kids to give them some beautiful gifts. If you ask children: what do you associate the holidays with?, most of them will answer: SANTA CLAUS! And here are the questions: how did it happen that Santa Claus looks the way he looks? Where did the conception that he brings presents and is a real Christmas spirit come from? And finally, how Santa became the symbol of Christmas commercials?

Santa Claus – how it started?

Let’s start from the beginning. There is a very well known character in hagiography, Saint Nicholas of Myra, living between the 3rd and 4th century. Although his life is shrouded in many legends, we don’t really know which of them are facts and which are only avuncular tales. One of the most popular legends is the one about St. Nicholas and the Three Maidens when young Nicholas saved three sisters from being sold into prostitution by throwing purses of gold through their window. Thanks to this, their father was able to provide them with the dowry and give them away in marriage. Another one says that Nicholas, extremely sensitive to harm to children living in poverty, left gifts at their door to cheer them up. In both stories was a crucial part: Nicholas was giving presents only under cover of the night since apparently he suffered from a severe case of shyness. Somebody says that this is the ground of the custom of giving gifts at night preceding St. Nicholas feast in some countries.

From the worship symbol to the symbol of… commercialism.

The climax of the cult of St. Nicholas falls in the Middle Ages. Many churches were named after him and liturgical hymns about St. Nicholas were created. In addition, looking at the medieval sources, his name appeared more and more often and the day of his death (6th of December) was established as Feast of St. Nicholas celebrating, among other things, by giving children treats.  

During The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, the group of historians and theologians was asked to review the process of saints. Existence of St. Nicholas was undermined due to insufficient evidences. As a result, the Feast of Saint Nicholas was changed for a less important holiday from the perspective of the church. However, it didn’t change anything in the eyes of the people, especially kids, for who St. Nicholas remained the favourite. Every year they have been waiting for him for centuries since the coming of St. Nicholas is associated with getting nice gifts, sweets and playing various games. 

Some researchers believe that the custom of giving presents on the occasion of Feast of St. Nicholas was grounded in the 12th century when French nuns were leaving bags with oranges, nuts and other treats at the doors of poor families. Apparently, people took over this custom, moving it further across the country and outside of it. On the other hand, some researchers consider different feast as a genesis of this practice which is Martinmas. In some European countries, for instance, Belgium, he was responsible for bringing treats to good children. 

In general, St. Nicholas has been surrounded by many legends indicating his philanthropy. It actually looks like the conglomeration of these tales and innocent medieval customs set one of the largest icons of pop culture and commercialism in train.

Santa Claus

Just answer one question: have you ever in your life seen streets without Santa Claus in December?

Me neither.

These days around Christmas time we can find him literally everywhere. Decorations, products’ packages, as chocolates and many others. Each shopping centre has its own Santa along with the whole entourage of stars, elves and reindeers that are supposed to encourage us to visit shopping centres with our children and, obviously, spend a lot of money. 

But how did it actually happen that from the image of a dignified bishop looking exactly like the rest of saints, the jolly old man in a red coat, a bobble hat and coming from the frosty North was born?

Irving, Moore, Nast and Coca-Cola – the fathers of Santa we know today

The Santa Claus that we know these days evolved for many ages. Previously, people imagined him in different ways. The current idea of Santa Claus was born just 200 years ago and we owe it to a few artists. 

At the beginning of the 19th-century American writer Washington Irving published a satiric book A History of New York where Santa Claus appears in a vehicle flying over the trees and people dress up to look like him (sounds familiar?). Irving imagined Santa not in the bishop robe but as a short, plump and cheerful old Dutchman (the Dutch brought the custom of celebrating St. Nicholas Day to the USA). 

Clement C. Moore American writer, professor of Divinity and Biblical Learning and also a friend of Irving, in 1822 wrote a poem A Visit from St. Nicholas which tells about Santa Claus visiting kids by reindeers’ sledges on Christmas Eve night. The names that Moore gave the reindeers remain to these days. As an inspiration to create his own Santa Claus, Moore partly used Irving’s work and partly his neighbour’s look who was an elder Dutchman. Besides promotion of the new Santa, Moore also rescheduled the tradition of giving presents from the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas to Christmas Eve.

Santa propaganda

Another important character taking part in the process of creating Santa Claus was a drafter and a cartoonist Thomas Nast. The author on commission of Harper’s Weekly magazine made 33 figures of Santa altogether. The most popular is Merry Old Santa Claus created in 1881. In this picture we can see an elder, plump man with a long, grey beard in, a well-known today, red coat trimmed by a white fur, carrying a bunch of toys. Nast, creating this image of Santa, perhaps inspired by the European idea of St. Nicholas, however, replaced a traditional red bishop robe with a secular red overcoat. In addition, Nast gave an address to Santa Claus placed somewhere in the far North and proclaimed elves his helpers (previously in some ideas Santa himself was depicted as an elf).

Looking at this drawing, we can see a jolly old man laden by toys for good children. In fact, this picture was a part of propaganda related to the Senate of the USA which couldn’t make a decision to reward the members of the army with higher salaries. Nast’s drawing expressed his pro-military standpoint and solidarity with members of the army. 

Santa Claus himself is simply a soldier. His heavy belt buckle and sword indicate this just like the bag which is actually a military backpack. The toy horse being held by Santa is supposed to symbolize the Trojan horse which appeals to the perfidious act of the Senate. There is also a pocket watch hanging on his little finger showing 10 minutes to midnight which indicates the time left for the Senate to make a decision. Although this drawing was a creation of political propaganda and didn’t have too much to do with Christmas, it became an iconic image of Santa Claus and perhaps contributed to how Santa looks today. Within the next years, this image of Santa Claus started showing up on some products, magazines’ covers and postcards around Christmas time.

December edition of satiric magazine Puck, Wikimedia Commons
Japanese Christmas card from 1914, Wikimedia Commons

In 1931, a real giant enters the stage to disseminate an image of Santa Claus and imprint it on our minds for the next century (and keep doing this with the next generations!). Coca-Cola and Haddon Sundblom created the first ad with Santa Claus. The reason was that people associated this soda with summer and generally hot days, therefore the brand wanted to remember their customers that Coca-Cola is a perfect drink for every month in the year.

The image Sundblom made was inspired by ideas of his predecessor, especially Moore’s and his friend, Lou Prentiss, served as a model. Overall, Sundblom created more than 40 pictures of Santa Claus for Coca-Cola. After his friend passed away, Sundblom used his own face to paint Santa Claus. Standing in front of the mirror, Sundblom drew the sketches which were a basis for the rest of the paintings. 

The first image of Coca-Cola ad created by Sundblom. Published in The Saturday Evening Post http://Coca-Cola Christmas: The 30s

It’s not easy to clearly explain how it actually happened that Santa Claus has been present in our minds (and everywhere else!) for decades and it doesn’t look at all that something will change. I tried to show you the path this cheerful old man went from a bishop to the favourite of all kids around the world. 

And as we know, he’s not the only gift-bringer. Apart from Santa Claus, some of the countries have their own counterparts, for instance, Ded Moroz, (Russia and some other Eastern Europe countries), Father Christmas (UK), The Three Magic Kings (Spain) or Hoteiosho (Japan). However, Santa Claus seems to be ahead of the curve! He’s the real ruler of Christmas decorations and advertising throughout the whole world.


Tanya Gulevich: Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year’s Celebrations






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