The Historical Development of the Mythical Santa Claus

Michel Rizzotti

Every year as winter sets in, people go through a yearly ritual called the Holidays. For some, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, a religious event. For others, it’s a secular season of gift giving and receiving. For most, it’s a consumer regimented event. Weeks prior December 25th, the mainstream media revives images of a mythical Santa Claus to set in motion a festive mood that will entice consumer spending. In most minds Santa Claus is an American icon, the result of newspapers’ fictional alteration of Saint Nicholas and the contribution of advertising that framed the image of the Santa as we know it today. Yet only since 1773 has he been known as Santa Claus and perceived as a secular icon rather than a Saint. This beckons the question: How did this transformation occur? Is it truly a secular transition or a market driven substitution of a sacred figure?

Saint Nicholas

Saint-Nichola

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas was a bishop of Myra, a city now part of Turkey, during the 4th century AD. He was known for kindness and generosity to children. One account of his life reveals that he gave gold coins as a marriage dowry to three girls in order to save them from prostitution. Legend also has it that he threw money from windows to poor children while remaining hidden. Regardless of his kindness, he was imprisoned during the most ruthless persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian. He was released from prison during the rule of Emperor Constantine. He is officially celebrated on December 6th, the day of his death. The Church documented several miracles that occurred during his life. He was canonized and became a patron Saint of children.

Soon after Saint Nicholas’ death his reputation grew in his country and abroad. He was buried in Myra and by the 6th century, the burial grounds became the site of a popular shrine. In 1087, a band of Italian sailors who heard stories about Saint Nicholas took it upon themselves to steal the Saint’s remains and bring them back to their home town of Bari. Once his remains were in Italy, the Saint’s popularity spread all over the country. A basilica was built to shelter Saint Nicholas’ relics and in time the shrine became one of most popular pilgrimage centers in the country.

A few years later, a French knight named Charles Aubert traveling through Bari took a piece of the relic and brought it back home. The relic became a sanctuary and the site of the basilica of Saint-Nicholas Le Port, near Nancy France. From Bari, the celebrated protector of children made its way to the east and north of France. Over the next 700 years his cult would spread to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and beyond – so much so that a great part of Europe celebrated a holiday of Saint Nicholas, patron of children.

The Reformation put a hold on the saint’s devotion in Germany and throughout the Protestant world. Martin Luther did not look kindly on the domineering power of Rome and its veneration of saints. Nonetheless, the devotion to the saint persisted in the Netherlands and in order to circumvent Luther’s admonition, the saint became known as Sinterklaas, a man dressed in a long red robe with a white beard who brings gifts and candy to children on December 6th.

Santa Claus

Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas

Centuries later, a number of Dutch immigrants who sailed to the New World brought the devotion of their Saint with them.They landed on a shore that they named New Amsterdam. It did not take long before the prized piece of real estate was coveted by English-speaking settlers. In the aftermath of the Anglo-Dutch war, the city became known as New York. The varied nationalities established themselves in different neighborhoods and coexisted somewhat peacefully. The Dutch kept their cultural traditions, including the celebration of Sinterklaas on December 6th. The English-speaking population took a liking to the patriarchal figure and adopted him. Unable to pronounce Sinterklaas, they instead named him Santa Claus. According to journalistic annals, the official Americanized name made its first appearance in a New York City newspaper in 1773.

Christian faithful of the New World ended with two holidays dedicated to children in the same month; the first on December 6th dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and the second on December 25th celebrating the birth of Christ. Americans, known for their propensity to simplify things, combined the two holidays into one. What was once the celebration of a Saint and of the birth of Christ became a festivity dedicated to children and gift-giving.

In A History of New York, a book written by Washington Irving in 1809, Saint Nicholas was no longer depicted as “lanky bishop,” but portrayed as a portly bearded man who smokes a pipe with a peculiar habit of coming down chimneys. The book was meant to be a parody about the overindulgence of New York City inhabitants living in exuberant wealth. Nonetheless, the account of a chubby character who was able descend a chimney ironically became part of “Santa’s” accepted behavior.

Moore

Moore’s Santa

On December 23, 1823, the Sentinel, a newspaper based in Troy, New York, printed a Christmas poem by Clement Clark Moore entitled, A Visit From St. Nicholas. The story depicted Saint Nick as a broad faced character, “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” dressed in white fur spotted with ash and soot. The poem introduced the idea of Santa traveling through the cold night skies in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. The American poem seemingly captured the imagination of readers and its popularity spread all over the country. Santa Claus was slowly overshadowing the story of an old Bishop riding on a cart pulled by an equally aging donkey.

Nast

Nast’s Santa

What Moore conjured up with words, Thomas Nast framed Santa’s image with sketches. Nast’s portraits of Father Christmas were seemingly inspired by New York writers and journalists rather than a by a concern of reproducing a historic Saint. Over the years he added varied details of his own about St. Nick’s personal life, including that the he lived in the North Pole. From 1863 to the turn of the century, Nast’s depictions eventually established a framework of what Santa Claus would look like. One memorable print shows Santa depicted with children sitting on his knees enumerating their Christmas presents wish list.

During the course of the nineteenth century, Santa was depicted wearing costumes of varied colors. Prior to red, he was pictured in white, green and purple dress. In Nast’s first sketch, Santa was dressed in a patriotic star and stripes costume. In his later renditions the red suit was the preferred color, perhaps to keep with the tradition of Sinterklaas’ long red robe. However, Santa could hardly take care of business wearing a long robe, so the Americanized Father Christmas was dressed in a more sporty attire consisting of a short coat, bonnet, sizable belt and boots to face winter and sneak down chimneys.

Further contribution to imprint Santa’s image was introduced by Louis Prang with his Christmas postcards. Prang is known as the “father of the Christmas card” for starting this commercial tradition of buying and sending Christmas cards. This custom originated in England in 1874 and it spread to the United States a few years later. His first Christmas card was created in 1885 depicting Santa in a red costume.

A side note: The bodily contrast between the meager Saint and the modern portly Santa reflects the perception that corpulence has been regarded throughout the ages as a sign of wealth and material abundance. In this regard, Santa reflected the US’ growing economic wealth, generosity and power.

Then came the tradition of a live Santa in department stores. The custom was introduced in 1980 by James Edgar, a Massachusetts businessman who is credited with coming up with the idea of having a Santa impersonator attract customers to his store. This marketing tool was so successful that children from all over the state dragged their parents to see Santa in Edgar’s dry goods store.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus

The most memorable contribution to Santa’s image was made during the roaring 1920s. In order to promote drinking cold drinks in winter, the management of a famous cola drink hired an established advertising agency to begin a nationwide campaign by placing ads in popular magazines. The image of Santa that is most recognizable today is attributed to illustrations created by Haddon Sundblom, who relied on Moore’s poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, as an inspiration to draw his portraits. As it happens, red and white were the official colors of the famous soft drink company and, thereafter Santa has been portrayed as a jovial and plump father figure in red and white attire.


World War II

In 1939, the United States was still struggling to revive a stagnant economy that began with great depression. The following years, young men of legal age were sent abroad to fight the dual evils of dictatorship and fascism while older men and women stayed at home to engineer and single-handedly build the greatest industrial powerhouse in the world. The US and its allies’ victory created an economic prosperity that would last several decades and a recovery that also lifted the Old World out of its economic doldrums.

The American troops that landed on the shores of Italy and France pushed back the occupying forces into a final retreat. The victory gave way to a welcome reception to soldiers who freely shared their name brand supplies with the people: chewing gum, cigarettes, soft drinks, music, movies and Santa Claus. The war liberated a great part of Europe and it just happens that the military also opened a new market for corporate America’s goods. For most Europeans, US soldiers were generous liberators carrying with them precious gifts; a relief from years of rations and starvation. However, not everybody felt the same way about their generosity.

On December 23, 1951, a priest set an effigy of Santa Claus on fire in front of the Cathedral of Dijon. The priest was venting his indignation toward a growing popularity of Santa Claus who he considered to be a poor travesty of an honorable Saint.

Secularization and the Sacred

The priest from Dijon might have been overly touchy about his religious devotion. He might also have been alerted by the invasion of a foreign symbol representing globalization. He nonetheless embodied a concern about an irrevocable shift in the representation of the sacred in popular culture. This process is referred to as secularization, which is commonly understood as a decrease in church attendance. A more apt description is when various elements of human life cease to be administered by religious institutions. Whereas, the historical definition of secularization is the confiscation of Church property by the State or a sovereign for worldly ends. In other words, the priest was objecting to the transfer – or symbolic confiscation – of a religious figure being converted it into an idol for commercial purposes.

The transformation of Saint Nicholas was made possible with the help of various media: newspaper articles, poems, books, postcards, sketches and advertising. Santa became a mythical icon conjured from a patchwork of different sources. As a result, he is no longer Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas. He is an entirely different character transformed into a media deity, a supernatural being whose mission is no longer helping children in distress but an agent of marketable goods.

For the sake of clarity, the term “media” is simply the plural of “medium.” And, in respect to secularization, the media has become the new intermediary between the providers of goods and services and the consumer. In a postmodern era, corporate media has imposed itself as the provider of the good news. It displaced the priesthood as the mediator between the sacred and the believers and imposed itself as a technological medium to the people. It provides televised models of conduct setting new grounds for acceptable behavior, a prerogative previously held by the priesthood concerned with moral principles. In time, the media became the gateway to an unlimited source of worldly gratification, a technological medium between an invisible power source that sets apart new standard for the sacred and the ordinary viewer: The purveyor of amoral forms of behavior.

Believers used to congregate in churches to celebrate their venerable Saint; now they assemble in malls to meet Santa and shop. What is at stake is more than a transfer of the sacred for a commercial use, but a challenge to the traditional role played by the priesthood. Priests, ministers and reverends are intermediaries between God and the faithful. They are agents that interpret the Word of God and administer rites to facilitate access to the divine. In essence, they are a living medium that connects the holy and the common believer; a medium that bridges the supernatural and the ordinary believer.

Secularization has not eliminated the sacred. It merely shifted its quality elsewhere. As a result of the vast economic development and the control of mainstream media by the market forces, Santa was elevated as a name-brand idol. It has shifted peoples’ alliance to a different form of devotion. Although the sacred today does not have the same religious meaning as it did in the past, it is regenerated with the same dynamic principle namely that in order to be sacred a being has to be set apart from the ordinary and common sphere; as supernatural  and otherworldly. In our day and age, the media at the beset of the corporate market forces is the new power source that establishes sacred representations permeating popular culture.

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Christmas and December 25th

In 274 AD Emperor Aurelius decreed the celebration of Sol Invictus – the “Unconquered Sun,” god patron of soldiers of the later Roman Empire, to be celebrated on December 25th. Less than a century later the Christian hierarchy had settled in Rome. In 354 AD, in order to settle a growing dispute regarding Jesus’ birth date and to foster peace among the increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds of Christian converts, Pope Liberius dedicated December 25th as the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. The Church had no factual evidence on the historical date of Jesus’ birth; nonetheless, the magisterium decided that a reasonable way to displace the pagan celebration of Sol Invictus would be to replace it with the commemoration of the birth of the Son of God.

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He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.
George Orwell

 

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