The Santa Claus that we know and love has undergone some radical changes and answered to many aliases throughout the years. He was born everywhere and nowhere, and has become an amalgam of various cultures, traditions, character traits and ideals. Following is a detailed look into some of his lesser-known history – with a glimpse into his grand evolution from Paganism to Commercialism.
Before the 1900s the Jolly Old Elf would have been unrecognizable at best, and downright creepy at worst. Our Santa has spent time as a Norse huntsman, a saintly Catholic bishop, a sinister looking imp and even a shamanistic sorcerer. Since his very earliest years, our Santa has always had magic on his side, and he’s always been linked to the gods – originally a god of mythology, and today, a consumer’s link to the birth of Jesus Christ.
10. The fellow we know as Santa saved women from prostitution, guided the dead, and stuffed bad children into his goody bag
Prior to the year 1300, St. Nicholas had a hankering for riding his white goat around on the winter solstice. His job at that time was to show compassion for the poor, give generously to the needy and gather dead souls to guide to their final resting place. (1)
This early winter-time icon was a mash-up between Nicholas of Myra and the Viking god, Odin. The real St. Nicholas was born around 280AD. He was famous for saving poor women from a life of prostitution by gifting their penniless father dowries that would secure them a more proper life. The Norse god, Odin, was born before the Earth and rode a flying horse with eight legs. He was associated with witchcraft and wizardry… oh yes, and power over the dead. (2)
There are also traces of other pre-Christmas gods and kings in Santa’s DNA – Odin’s Germanic counterpart, Woden, the Dutch’s Sinterklaas, the Saxxon’s Father Time, the Pagan King of Frost, the Egyptian’s Abydose (the god of the afterlife and resurrection) and the Slavic’s sorcerer, Ded Moroz (or Grandfather Winter). I should also mention that the Alpine Countries depict St. Nicholas with his sidekick, Krampus, who uses his over-sized bag to carry bad children away – for eating, drowning or transporting to hell. (3)
9. Santa’s predecessor is the patron saint of pirates, orphans and victims of judicial mistakes
St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) found his way to the Americas in the early 1600’s. It seems that his spirit hitched a ride over on a Dutch sea vessel commanded by Henry Hudson. After Hudson founded the city of Manhattan, a statue honoring St. Nicholas was erected in gratitude for safe passage. After all, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailing… as well as pirating, butchery, orphans, pawnbrokers, prisoners, thieves, and victims of judicial mistakes, to name a few. (4)
Because of his sketchy background, mostly tied to non-Christian ancestry, Old St. Nick had a hard time claiming his American identity. In fact, it took him more than 200 years after his arrival in New England to have his legal name changed to Kris Kringle (a bastardization of Christkindlein – the German word for Christ Child) and achieve his American citizenship. (5)
8. It was once illegal to celebrate Christmas
In 1659 Massachusetts Legislature passed an ordinance making it illegal to partake in any Christmas festivities since it was a deeply rooted Pagan custom based on ancient Saturnalia celebrations. There were even bans on saying the name “St. Nicholas” or using natural decorations such as holly, pine boughs and mistletoe – also due to their relation to the celebrations of the Earth-based religions. Breaking this law would cost the offender a 5 shilling fine. (6)
Even as recently as the early 19th century Christmas wasn’t officially observed in the United States, it was, rather, an underground observance of the American Dutch and German population. December 25th, being of no significance in the Christian Bible, was considered of no significance for Protestants.
The most religious of early Americans agreed with the sixteenth-century bishop, Hugh Latimer, who said, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides”. (7)
One of the first official documentations of Santa Claus in relation to Christmas in the United States was Washington Irving’s Salmagundi (1808), where he was “vulgarly called Santaclaus” and “most venerated by Hollanders and their unsophisticated descendants”.
It wasn’t until 1836 that Christmas was officially and formally observed in this Country – in the State of Alabama; and it was not declared a national holiday until 1870. Oklahoma was the last state to make Christmas a legal observance in 1907 – 37 years after national recognition. Thus, Christmas was illegal in some form, in various states, for more than 200 years after its arrival to the New World. (8)
7. Before Santa got his sleigh, he soared over rooftops in a wagon
In 1809 Washington Irving helped streamline a contemporary St. Nicholas in New York City with his satire, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. In Irving’s writing, St. Nick rode into town on a horse, then later in a re-write he soared over rooftops in a wagon. (9)
However, St. Nicholas didn’t received his modern look and jolly ways until Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (eventually known as The Night Before Christmas). As of today, 192 years after it was written, this Christmas poem remains the most circulated, read, memorized and collected book in all of the literature based on this season. (10)
6. Santa’s first illustrated appearances included lynching and disembodied heads
In 1862, the first modern illustration of Santa Claus appeared in Harper’s Weekly. He was presented wearing striped pants and a star spangled coat in order to support the Union soldiers during the Civil War.
The artist, Thomas Nast, continued using Santa to perpetrate propaganda throughout the war. In the 1863 issue (same magazine, same artist) Santa is shown holding a Jefferson Davis puppet with a lynching rope around his neck. And two years later Ulysses S. Grant appeared alongside Santa with disembodied heads of Confederate generals at his feet. (11)
5. The famous letter that prompted “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” is valued at over $30,000
In September of 1897 the New York Sun received a letter from an eight year old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?” she asked in her letter.
Editorialist, Francis Church, printed a reply. It read in part, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”
Readers continued to write in and remark about this editorial for decades to come. The Sun ran reprints throughout the rest of its history. Virginia O’Hanlon grew up to be a school teacher and principal in the New York school system. Her granddaughter, being in possession of Virginia’s original hand-written letter, recently had it appraised. It is currently valued at more than $30,000. (12)
“Is there a Santa Claus?” remains the most reprinted editorial to ever run in any newspaper in the English language. (13)
4. An artist’s oversight left the nation wondering if Santa divorced Mrs. Claus
It wasn’t long after Christmas was legalized that corporations realized Santa’s marketing value, thus he began his career in commercial advertising. In 1915 Santa Claus showed up in the San Francisco Examiner driving a delivery truck for White Rock mineral water, and the very next year he had upgraded to aero plane deliveries in the New York Herald. (14)
By 1923 Santa had made his debut in Life Magazine where he was shown enjoying a bottle of whiskey. The Coca Cola Company got ahold of Santa during the late 1920s and by the 30s had commissioned an artist (Haddon Sundblom) to recreate him into a jollier version of his previous selves.
During the Great Depression, when art supplies were scarce, Sundblum painted over the original Coca Cola Santa portrait to create a newer version. He did this by altering the original slightly, thus the first and third Coke Santa is actually a hybrid of both. (15)
Sundblom’s renditions of Jolly old St. Nicholas were so popular that people routinely telephoned Coca Cola to ask about subtle changes in his annual appearance. One year Santa appeared without his wedding ring, so people in fact called to find out if the jolly fellow had gotten a divorce from Mrs. Claus.
3. There is a Santa School
The first Santa School was established by Charles W. Howard in 1937 in Albion, New York. The school was designed to teach new department store Santas how to portray the character, interact with children and perfect their selling techniques. Mr. Howard’s school continues today – though it has moved to Michigan – and remains the longest running Santa School in the world. (16)
Graduates (Santas, as well as Mrs. Clauses) each have to take an official oath. And of course, Santa has a Coat of Arms – complete with a shield wrapped in grapevines, symbolizing the “thirst and pursuit of knowledge”. (17)
2. Santa has been spotted looking up women’s dresses and blowing up people with bombs
In the beginning years of Santa’s work in sales he promoted much more than the beverages of White Rock and Coca Cola. He also endorsed products such as GE light bulbs, Florida orange juice, a variety of beers as well as women’s lingerie. In fact, there is a risqué advertisement from the 1950s showing a smiling Santa getting a quick peek under a woman’s dress as she models her stockings – while decorating her Christmas tree, of course. (18)
The Santa of this era was often shown smoking a pipe, so it should be no shocker that he also worked with many different tobacco companies. The Jolly old Elf showed up in multiple advertisements coaxing the public to purchase decorated cartons of cigarettes for the best holiday gift giving. His smoking did (mostly) stop, however, in 1964 after the Surgeon General publicly linked smoking with lung cancer – though he did continue to work with Marlboro for just a while after. (19)
During the Second World War, Santa was back in the propaganda game. This time he was soliciting war bonds, supporting military weaponry and predicting victory through air power. There’s even a Soviet Union ad showing Santa bringing gifts to the enemy – a big bag of bombs. (20)
1.NORAD Santa Tracker started by accident
To this day, Santa Claus is still connected to the military. Every year, since 1955, the U.S.-Canada North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has tracked Santa’s progress from the North Pole across the world on Christmas Eve. It may surprise you to know that this all started as an accident.
On Christmas Eve of 1955, an advertisement for Sear’s department store encouraged children to call and talk to Santa Claus directly. There was a misprint of the telephone number and calls were made instead to the top-secret crisis line of the Continental Air Defense Command (NORAD’s forerunner). By a great stroke of luck, Air Force Col. Harry Shoup was in charge that night, and conceded to encourage and continue this tradition that started itself by accident. (21)
Every year thereafter the Defense Command has taken countless calls from children seeking information on Santa’s whereabouts – indeed on designated telephone lines, less alarming than the type of connection the calls originally came in on. For nearly sixty years these phone lines have been staffed with U.S. Military personnel and their families happily keeping anxious kids updated on Santa’s vastly anticipated trek across the world. (22)
In 2013, NORAD’s 1,200 volunteers answered more than 117,000 calls on Christmas Eve. There were also 19.58 million website visitors, 1.45 million “likes” on Facebook and 146,307 followers on Twitter. (23)
When asked if Santa Claus is real, the NORAD volunteers answer, “Based on historical data and more than 50 years of NORAD tracking information, we believe that Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of children throughout the world.”
Santa Claus has been a representative of many different things for many different people. The fascinating background of this very remarkable amalgam of a man is enough to keep a shroud of mystery surrounding him even today.
His image has been exploited by advertising agencies, warmongers and even religious groups. But still, he has remained our very dear St. Nick – rider of goats, god of Pagans, saintly Catholic, weapon-toting war propagandist, marketing genius, whiskey drinking, chain smoking, philandering, bearer of souls, dowries, and presents – our kindly and Jolly Old Elf.
So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus – and there’s a flavor for everybody. Of all the Santas out there, my favorite is this Odinish Hippy Homeless Dude Santa from 1920. He just looks like a fun guy to have show up on a cold night bearing treats and goodies 🙂
In the words of Mr. Charles W. Howard, “He errs who thinks Santa enters by the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.”