The image of Santa Claus with a red suit and a big belly was created by people in the United States in the 1800's. In this country, we know him as a jolly fellow leaning back in his sleigh with an overstuffed sack full of gifts. We have grown to love the man who visits our children on Christmas Eve and brings joy and anticipation every year. We have learned the details of his magical operation - everything from the name of his flying reindeer to the color of his cheeks. But how much of this is based on fact, and how much is based on fiction? To answer this we look at the roots of the Santa Claus legend, born in Europe long before North America developed a different character.
St. Nicholas is a true historical figure. He was a wealthy and well-loved saint who was rumored to have robin-hood like qualities: help the poor, provide shelter too the abandoned. It is well known that he would deliver gifts to poor children, moving house to house in poor neighborhoods. He was also known to help seafaring individuals who were poor and "washed up." As his title indicates, Nicholas was, in fact, a canonized saint with an official feast day of December 6.
His legend grew quickly around Europe. He was known by all as a man of generosity and good spirit. His German name was Sankt Nikolaus in Germany and in Holland he was known as Sanct Herr Nicholaas. The legend developed various twists that were harder to believe but spread like wildfire. Some claimed that he flew through the air in a horse-drawn carriage. He was often depicted wearing the garments of a bishop and traveling with a small man named "Black Peter" who was a disciplinary figure for poorly-behaved children.
After the Reformation, the official feast day of Jesus Christ was created (December 25th). Due to the proximity of the Christ Feast day to the Feast of Saint Nicholas, the celebrations became united. It is also argued by many that the celebration of the Winter Solstice was merged with the Christ Feast day and in turn, the Feast of St. Nicholas. As a result, many of the things that we associate with Christmas in the Western world are actually customs that were adopted from the celebration of the Winter Solstice and the Feast of St. Nicholas.
The evolution of Santa's many names evolved is a bigger mystery. The term Christkindl became Kriss Kringle, another name that has been adopted by the North American Santa Claus legend. In Scandanavia, a Santa-like figure is know as Julenisse. In England, the loose equivalent is Father Christmas.
So how did the legend make its way to North America? The Dutch brought the legend of Sinter Klaas, brought by settlers to New York in the 17th century. In the late 1700's, print media in the U.S. had begun to spin the tale of St. Claus. However, the person who deserves the most credit for developing the image of Santa Claus in the U.S. is Washington Irving. In January 1809, on the "feast day" of St. Nicholas Day he published the Knickerbocker's History of New York, which featured the character of St. Nicholas. The character depicted was not a saintly figure, but rather a Dutch, elf-like figure with a pipe. Irving's work was considered to be the "first notable work of imagination in the New World." It captured and inspired the imagination of many, and still does to this day.
But the Dutch Santa figure was not fully evolved in the United States. It achieved another important transformation thanks to the work of writer Clement mark Moore. In his 1823 work "The Night Before Christmas," Moore created many of the details that embody our modern American Santa Claus: the color of his suit, the sound of his laughter, the names of his reindeer, the miracle of entering through the chimney.
But the visual picture was not complete until Thomas Nast painted images of Santa for Christmas issues of Harper's magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s. Nast also added his own details to the legend: the north pole workshop, the list that he "checks twice."
But what about Santa's size? He was originally created as an elf in Washington's depiction. It was not until Coca Cola ads created in the early 1900's that Santa was depicted as a full grown human. Product advertising has played a key role in the development of Santa Claus. Rudolph was the creation of an advertising writer in the Montgomery Ward Company.
To this day, the icon is further engraved in our culture through billboards, greeting cards, ornaments, decorations, and of course, fictional media. Santa has appeared in countless movies, television shows, and other works of fiction. Santa is truly "everywhere" in our modern society during the month of December. It is important to remember that the figure has developed into a tool for marketing products, and it's not necessarily how it started. The original characters that were the basis for our modern Santa Claus were known for kindness and generosity. Despite what most corporations will tell you, the best way to spread the love of Santa Claus is to donate your money to the poor - not spend it at the department store.
Have a very merry Christmas!
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