A brief history of Santa Claus

Arthur Purdue looks back at the evolution of our favourite seasonal character, Santa, whose waistline has waxed and waned throughout history...

'Merry Christmas' Victorian illustration of Santa Claus holding toys and blowing on a trumpet, chromolithograph, 1915. (Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

On 23 December 1951, the Catholic clergy at Dijon organised an execution of Santa Claus. An image of him was hanged from the railings of the cathedral and then burned in front of several hundred Sunday School children. Santa Claus arouses strong feelings.

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The Anglo-American Santa Claus or Father Christmas has come to dominate the modern Christmas. You can find him in the department stores of Tokyo and Singapore as well as New York and London. But who is he? His characteristics were set out by Clement Moore in his poem, A Visit from Santa Claus, published in 1823 in the Troy Sentinental: he was “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf”; he arrived on a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer; and came down the chimney with a sack of toys for children.

A Dickensian Christmas. (© Alamy/Mary Evans)

Essentially he’s a composite figure: a bit of St Nicholas, an element of the old English personification of Christmas and quite a lot of pagan mythology. It has even been suggested that this figure at the heart of our mid-winter feast draws on shadowy memories of shamans of central Asia, who were believed to be able to fly after eating the red and white fly agaric mushroom and entered yurts via the roof. At any rate, he’s very different to Saint Nicholas, an ascetic figure on a white horse.

Santa through the ages

1

Christmas is cancelled

This illustration depicts the attempt to ban Christmas under the mid-17th century Commonwealth, which held that there was no Biblical mention of the date of Christ’s birth and that the festival gave rise to feasting, drinking and bawdy behaviour. “Old Christmas” is told to keep out by a Cromwellian soldier. The personification of Christmas was known as Old, Sir or Captain Christmas.

(Photo by Illustrated London News/British Library)
(Photo by Illustrated London News/British Library)
2

A heroic drinker

These early Victorian images are taken from the same magazine, Illustrated London News, in 1847 (left) and 1848 (below). Both depict Old Christmas, the pre-modern spirit of Christmas. One is a jovial, almost Dionysian, figure, a Lord of Misrule dispensing alcoholic good cheer. The other is lean and gaunt and rather akin to Old Father Time though he, nevertheless, brings warmth and refreshment.

(Photo by Illustrated London News/British Library)
(Photo by Illustrated London News/British Library)
(Photo by Illustrated London News/British Library)
(Photo by Illustrated London News/British Library)
3

Wheezy bringer of gifts

If Clement Moore described Santa Claus in words, it was his fellow American, the illustrator, Thomas Nast, who fixed the appearance of this spirit of Christmas until well into the 20th century. His drawings for Harper’s Weekly which he began in 1863, show Santa as much like Moore’s “jolly old elf” though in his later work he settled on a portrayal closer to that which has now become traditional: a large jovial white-bearded figure, dressed in a red suit with a matching cap.

(Photo by Bridgeman Art Library)
(Photo by Bridgeman Art Library)
4

Father Christmas goes to war

By the late 19th century, Father Christmas, as he was called in Britain, had become a central figure in Christmas festivities, even depicted delivering presents to British troops serving in Afghanistan. This illustration of a rather war-like Christmas spirit is taken from the Graphic (27 December 1869) and is part of an illustration of the way that British troops – sent, not for the first or last time, to a rather inhospitable Afghanistan – celebrated Christmas.

(Photo by Illustrated London News)
(Photo by Illustrated London News)
5

Red or green?

What has become the definitive image of Santa Claus was created from the 1930s to the 1960s by Haddon H Sundblom in his many adverts for Coca Cola. He exudes warmth and kindliness, has a luxuriant white beard and wears a long red jacket trimmed with white fur and fastened with an enormous belt and long leather boots. He is, however, secular and somewhat sanitised like the modern Christmas itself; there’s still an echo of the Lord of Misrule in his “Ho ho ho” but the pipe has gone and instead of holding a flowing bowl he drinks Coca Cola.

But did Coca-Cola really turn Santa red and white? BBC News Magazine says: “The red suit and hat with the white fur trim have given rise to the belief among some that Santa’s togs were dreamed up by canny advertising men who recast him in the soft drink maker’s corporate colours.

“But while there’s some truth in the suggestion – Coke ran a campaign for 30 years featuring a jolly fat Santa – his colour scheme owes more to ecclesiastical vestments than a brainstorm on Madison Avenue.

(Photo by Illustrated London News)
(Photo by Illustrated London News)

“The colours are widely thought to derive from the original Saint Nicholas, who was the Bishop of Myra in the 4th Century. Red and white were the hues of traditional bishop robes, although some historians argue that he originally dressed in different colours.”

Researcher Tom Glamon adds: “Father Christmas is an evolutionary creation, influenced by folklore, legend and religion. He didn’t spring to life at a certain time, fully formed and wearing a red and white suit. It wasn’t really until the late 19th century that the image now recognised across the world became set.”

Christmas merriment in an old English manor in the 1500s. (Photo by North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy)
6

These boots are killing me

Although the modern Christmas is an Anglo-American creation, the British Father Christmas dresses differently to the American Santa. He wears a long red habit trimmed with white fur and a hood rather than the red suit and cap favoured in America. Increasingly the British Father Christmas was replaced by the American Santa Claus.

In this illustration of a Second World War Father Christmas he also carries a tin hat (Picture Post 23 December 1939). Increasingly the British Father Christmas seems to be being replaced by the American Santa Claus.

(Photo by Illustrated London News)
(Photo by Illustrated London News)
7

In need of a good meal

This French Père Noël on a 1920s postcard wears a long habit and a hood but is a more ascetic and saintly figure, far from the corpulent and ruddy-cheeked English or American version.

(Photo by Illustrated London News)
(Photo by Illustrated London News)
8

US Santa’s not welcome

The Anglo-American Santa is not always welcomed in European countries by those who cherish their own customs and versions of seasonal visitors. The Dutch Saint Nicholas is not popular with traditionalists in the Netherlands. The municipal authorities of Assen were not tolerant of one Santa who went there in 1994. As reported in the Sunday Times on 4 December, the police ran him out of town.

(Photo by Sunday Times)
(Photo by Sunday Times)
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This article was first published in the December 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine