The Imagination of Santa Claus

I noticed that I missed "Saint Nicholas Day" on December 6!

To make this up, I decided to create this post dedicating to the popularity of St. Nick.

Every year during Christmas time, we see a jolly old man wearing a red suit and a white beard. Sometimes with glasses. We call this person, "Santa Claus" or "St. Nick."

We never realize why Santa Claus wore a red suit. Or how Santa Claus became an iconic figure. Let's dive into history, shall we?

History of the Santa Claus

It all started in 4th century in an area that is now the country of Turkey. There was a Greek bishop-turned-saint named St. Nicholas who leaves coins in shoes and stockings of children.

Ever since St. Nicholas's death, he became a popular figure in Europe until the Protestant Reformation. As a result, St. Nicholas was replaced with different figureheads like England's Father Christmas.

A drawing of St. Nicholas by artist Alexander Anderson (1810)

How the idea of Santa Claus came into America was thanks to John Pintard, a merchant and philanthropist who was the first secretary of the New York Historical Society, and together with the society, they established an annual Saint Nicholas Day Dinner that took place on December 6th, 1810.

"A Visit from St. Nicholas" was written anonymously in 1823, and it described him this way...

“dressed in all fur, from his head to his foot,” whose “cheeks were like roses” and with a “nose like a cherry,” not to mention his beard “as white as the snow,”

“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” Not everything stuck, though. Throughout the poem, St. Nick is characterized as a pint-sized elf with a “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer,”

NOTE: You can read more about this poem in my previous blog here!

Thomas Nast's drawing of Santa Claus (1863)

Thomas Nast was a political cartoonist, and was influenced by his German heritage as well as "A Visit from St. Nicholas" poem and England's Father Christmas to draw the image of Santa Claus.

"The drawings show the influence of Nast’s Bavarian childhood in their similarities to Pelznickel, the 'stern German gift-bringer' who, clad in all furs, carried gifts for good children and threatened naughty children with switches. The Pelznickel influence may be why some of Nast’s Santas wear a suit that looks more like deerskins than the luxurious red and white we now associate with St. Nick. (Interestingly, Pelznickel was first popularized in post-Protestant Reformation Germany as a secular alternative to St. Nicholas after the honoring of saints had been condemned.)"

- Maureen Monahan, "The Holly Jolly History of the Santa Suit."

Fun Fact #1: Nast’s German hometown Landau honors his contributions to Santa Claus with their annual Christmas market, the Thomas-Nast-Nikolausmarkt.

Coca-Cola and The Santa Claus We Know and Love

What really helped shaped the image of Santa Claus was the Coca-Cola Company in the 1920s. Ever since Nast's creation of Santa, the company began using his drawings for their Christmas shopping-related ads.

Haddon Sundblom's Santa Claus Coke ad (1931)

In 1931, Archie Lee, the D’Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted to create a Santa that is "symbolic" and "realistic." With that, they hired Haddon Sundblom to draw someone who is, "Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa."

"For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem 'A Visit From St. Nicholas' (commonly called 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'). Moore’s description of St. Nick led to an image of a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human Santa. (And even though it’s often said that Santa wears a red coat because red is the color of Coca-Cola, Santa appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him.)"

- Coca-Cola United

That same year, in 1931, Sundblom's Santa debuted in Coke ads in newspapers and magazines like The Saturday Evening Post , Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, and The New Yorker.

Dressing Up Like Santa Claus

James Edgar Plaque

The debut of Thomas Nast's Santa Claus really impacted many people with the idea of Santa Claus, especially to James Edgar to brought Santa to life based on Nast's Santa Claus in December 1890. Edgar became the first department store Santa Claus in downtown Brockton, Massachusetts.

Fun Fact #2: Not only did Edgar dressed as Santa Claus, he also dressed as George Washington, a cricket player, a sea captain, a clown, and even as an Indian “Big Chief” for the children on the streets. He was known for being photographs in those costumes.

Edgar's contribution to the Christmas holiday as Santa impacted downtown Brockton, and turned it into a "Christmas Town," envisioned by John Merian, downtown businessman, and president of the Downtown Brockton Association.

It's possible that this impacted other Main Streets in America like our very own town of Ambler during the holiday.

According to the plaque, Edgar did not dress up as Santa to be a commercial attraction. He did it for "the enjoyment of the children and to promote Christmas."

"You just can’t imagine what it was like. I remember walking down an aisle and, all of a sudden, I saw Santa Claus. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and then Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true."

- Edward Lowery Pearson (1976) remembering his first sighting of Santa Claus

Clipping from Ambler Gazette (December 17, 1917): Page 1

Clipping from Ambler Gazette (December 27, 1917): Page 5


"5 Things You Never Knew About Santa Claus and Coca-Cola." Coca-Cola United. Last modified December 22, 2017.

"A Pictorial History of Santa Claus." The Public Review Domain Review. Accessed November 26, 2020.

Allegrini, Elaine. "James Edgar's Santa Claus --- the spirit of Christmas." The Enterprise. Last modified November 16, 2008.

Degg, D. D. "THOMAS NAST, SAINT AND SINNER." The Daily Cartoonist. December 21, 2018.

"Haddon 'Sunny' Sundblom." Art Smart for Kids. Accessed November 28, 2020.

Monahan, Maureen. "The Holly Jolly History of the Santa Suit." Mental Floss. Last modified December 21, 2016.

Papadopoulos, Maria. "RED HAT SOCIETY: 507 Santa hat-clad people turn out for tribute to first department store Santa." Salute to James Edgar. Last modified November 24, 2008.

"Wissahickon Valley Public Library's Ambler Gazette Collection." POWER Library: Pennsylvania's Electronic Library. Accessed November 1, 2020.

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