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The Changing Appearance of Santa Claus

Talk about someone whose appearance has changed over the years! Santa Claus has taken on many looks, but the characteristics of the benevolent gift giver have remained remarkably constant.


Our Santa Claus Picture Starts with St. Nicholas

The original appearance of Santa Claus dressed in red robes with white trim goes back to St. Nicholas himself. St. Nicholas was a bishop and red robes with white trim were what bishop's wore. According to Christmas tradition, Nicholas was born of wealthy parents in the year 280 A.D. in a small town of Patara in Asia Minor. He lost his parents early to an epidemic, but not before they had instilled in him the gift of faith. Christmas tradition goes on to say that young Nicholas moved to Myra and lived a life filled with sacrifice and love in the spirit of Jesus. Nicholas became the bishop of his town and was known for his Christlike character. He was persecuted and even imprisoned for his faith. Christmas traditions tell many stories of his generosity and compassion: how he begged for food for the poor, and how he would give impoverished girls money so that they would have a dowry to marry a husband. The most popular Christmas tradition is how Saint Nicholas would go out in disguise and would give gifts to poor children.


The Santa Claus Picture Evolved Over the Years

Today, most people have a similar image of what Santa Claus looks like-- plump, red suit, bag flung over his back, long white beard and jolly. But if you go back a couple of hundred years, the appearance of Santa Claus has changed drastically. His look has ranged from big to elflike small, from fat to tall, gaunt and dignified. Santa Claus has worn everything from his traditional bishop's robe to a Norse huntsman's animal skin. Other countries have contributed to the Santa Claus picture. For instance, Scandinavia gave us Santa's reindeer and sleigh, and Holland provided his pipe and chimney.


Washington Irving Influenced the Appearance of Santa Claus


Santa Claus Picture

In 1664, St. Nicholas arrived in America with the Dutch, who colonized New Amsterdam (New York). One of their descendants, Washington Irving, published a satirical version of Dutch traditions called "A History of New York," which contained multiple references to Sinter Klaas (adopted from Sint Nikolass). Irving's book included a tale of how Sinter Klaas, a jolly fellow, flew across the sky in a wagon and dropped presents down chimneys for good little boys and girls. The New Yorkers loved the image. Later, one Irving's good friends, Dr. Clement Clarke Moore incorporated Irving's St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, look into his famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (Twas the Night Before Christmas).


John Pintard Changed the Santa Claus Picture

The modern appearance of Santa Claus can be traced to New York City. John Pintard, a merchant and the founder of the New York historical society was truly a sentimentalist. It was Pintard that promoted Saint Nicholas as New York City's patron saint. He printed a pamphlet in 1810 with the earliest known Santa Claus picture. Interestingly, Pintard's brother-in-law was Washington Irving, who evidently loved Pintard's appearance of Santa Claus and incorporated it into his book. And, of course, we've already discussed the influence that Irving's Santa Claus had on Clement Moore.


The Appearance of Santa Claus Changes with a Cartoon

One of the next major changes to the appearance of Santa Claus came in 1862 during the Civil War. Clearly inspired by Clement Moore's poem, "Twas a Night Before Christmas," Thomas Nast, a gifted cartoonist, drew his Santa Claus rendition for Harper's Weekly. His drawings mark the first appearance of Santa Claus as we know him today. Although Nast's first Santa Claus was a small, plump elflike figure that supported the Union, Nast went on to produce 76 Christmas engravings that were signed and published over the next 24 years. We can credit Nast for bringing Moore's poem to life. His Santa Claus picture was: a sleigh, reindeer, jolly old elf, and filling the stockings hung by the chimney. Nast changed our perception of Santa Claus--now Santa's home was in the North Pole, and he had a workshop and elves to help him. In addition, Nast conceived the tradition of sending Santa Claus letters, and his engravings also popularized the European custom of kissing under mistletoe.


Coca-Cola® Commercializes the Santa Claus Picture

The Coca-Cola Company changed the appearance of Santa Claus for good. In the 1920s, Coke® began its Christmas advertising with print ads in such periodicals as the Saturday Evening Post. Thomas Nast's influence could clearly be felt. In 1930, the Santa Claus picture was used again in Coca-Cola advertising. The artist was Fred Mizen that painted a department store Santa Claus in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke®. Mizen's Santa Claus picture was used in many ads that Christmas season.

Haddon Sundblom was the next Coca-Cola® illustrator to create a Santa Claus picture. For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Moore's classic poem. Now the appearance of Santa Claus was solidly a "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf." For the next 35 years, Sundblom painted Santa Claus Pictures that helped to create the modern appearance of Santa Claus.

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