How America captured Christmas

Many believe that Father Christmas is a figure whose origins go back to the dawn of history and that Santa Claus is a mere American variant of a timeless British figure. In fact, their origins and relationship are far more complicated than that, as historian George Goodwin explains

The figure of Santa Claus smokes a pipe

The figure of Santa Claus is the very embodiment of the modern American secular Christmas. And yet it’s a curiosity of history that the name of Santa Claus stems from St Nicholas. Though one of the most popular Saints during the Middle Ages, he – like all Roman Catholic Saints – was anathema to the Pilgrim Fathers, the nation’s most famous early European settlers (whose Quadricentennial will be celebrated next year).

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The Pilgrims Fathers’ first 25 December on land was actually in 1621. That’s because, although 1620 is recognised as the year of their first landing on the coast of what is now Massachusetts, their settlement at New Plymouth was not built until the following year. Because of the lateness of the season, they spent that first winter on board ship where, in cramped, evil-smelling and unhygienic conditions, almost half of the 102 passengers died. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Christmas Day 1620 was not considered an appropriate time for merriment.

But then neither was Christmas Day 1621, as we can discover through the words of the settlers’ leader, Governor William Bradford. By the end of 1621, the original Pilgrims had been joined by a new group who were not attuned to the same ‘proper’ principles of the first settlers. In his journal, Of Plymouth Plantation, Governor Bradford described how those differences were made very clear on 25 December:

“On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called all to work (as was usual), but most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when the workers came home at noon from their work, he found the others in the street openly at play; some pitching the bar and some at stoolball [a cricket/baseball prototype] and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that it was against his conscience that they should play and others work. If they made keeping the day a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been attempted in that way, at least openly [author’s italics].”

A depiction of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.
The Pilgrims Fathers’ first 25 December on land was actually in 1621. Although 1620 is recognised as the year of their first landing, their settlement at New Plymouth was not built until the following year. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

We can, at least, credit the puritanical Bradford with having a sense of humour, if of the driest kind, but he did rather joylessly take his fellow colonists’ bats and balls away. This set a standard for years to come. Christmas did not become an official holiday in Massachusetts until 1856.

Washington Irving’s jolly St Nicholas

No, we need to forget the Pilgrim Fathers and instead look further south for the genesis of America’s great contribution to Christmas. It came almost two centuries later, from the pen of Washington Irving, a New Yorker now best known for his stories Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. The modern iteration of Santa Claus, in fact, started life as a character in a joke.

Amused by the efforts of some well-intentioned members of the New-York Historical Society, who sought to generate a backlog of tradition for the vastly expanding city, Irving decided to parody their efforts. In A History of New York, first published in 1809, he credited St Nicholas, Europe’s traditional present-bringer, with directing the early Dutch colonists to settle Manhattan when the saint was “riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children”.

Washington Irving.
Washington Irving. (Image by RF/Getty Images)

Irving then described how the naturally grateful colonists thanked their guardian with the ceremony of “hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St Nicholas Eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children”. This St Nicholas, capable of “riding jollily among the treetops, or over the roofs of houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys” was a friend to the young. In fact, this new St Nicholas was completely child-centred, “confining his presents merely to the children, in token of the degeneracy of the parents”!

Irving’s St Nicholas or Sinterklaas, to give him his Dutch name, would surely have met with Governor Bradford’s strict disapproval. For one thing, St Nicholas was a Roman Catholic saint. In addition, Irving’s version was totally sympathetic and stripped St Nicholas of his traditional duty of bringing a birch punishment for badly behaved children.

Sinterklaas gains a personality 

After Irving’s somewhat improbable contribution, the next development was for Sinterklaas to be renamed, as can be seen in an anonymous illustrated children’s poem of 1821 that begins with the line “Old Santeclaus with much Delight”. As well as being close to creating the modern name, it moved the time of present-bringing to Christmas Eve and, in tune with the midwinter festival, the poem adds snow and a sleigh pulled by a reindeer. As for Santa Claus himself, he looks nothing like the modern version and, in one sense, he is more akin to the pre-Irving, medieval St Nicholas as he is once again the birch bringer.

The poem “Old Santeclaus with much Delight” added snow and a sleigh pulled by a reindeer

But who wrote the poem? Three very different men have been posited as its anonymous author: one being a writer friend of Irving; another a Presbyterian minister and illustrator; and the third a professor of Hebrew with substantial landholdings in Manhattan. The three men had two things in common. Firstly, they were all New Yorkers. Secondly, there are good reasons for not accepting any of them as the poem’s author. The most relevant of these refers to the professor, Clement Clarke Moore, for in the very same year as the publication of Old Santeclaus, Moore wrote a much more famous Christmas poem that focused on a completely benevolent central character.

In Moore’s poem, the figure had reverted to the name of St Nicholas (as per the poem’s title, A Visit from St Nicholas) and he was now “jolly”, “chubby and plump”, and “had a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly”. And the modern Santa Claus is clearly recognisable when one adds the lines: “His eyes – how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow”.

The very image of Santa Claus

As popular as it became, Moore’s poem – far better known by its first line, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” – did not find an illustrator to do justice to its subject until Christmas 1862. That was when yet another New Yorker, Thomas Nast, first illustrated Santa Claus, as the figure had become widely known. But he would need 18 more years before he finally perfected the image that we now know so well.

Nast has been described as the father of modern political cartooning in the United States. In keeping with that, his first depiction of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly was overtly political, showing him serious-faced and distributing presents to Union soldiers during the American Civil War. However, to give him added authority, Nast made the diminutive fellow of Moore’s poem into a life-sized individual and began the transformation that would finally result in his depiction of the larger-than-life-sized persona in a fur-trimmed red suit.

Thomas Nast's first depiction of Santa Claus in 'Harper’s Weekly'
Nast’s first depiction of Santa Claus in ‘Harper’s Weekly’, showing him serious-faced and distributing presents to Union soldiers during the American Civil War (Image by Alamy)

By Christmas 1866, Nast was depicting an altogether friendlier Santa and an industrious one too. In ‘Santa Claus: His Works’, Nast showed toys being made as well delivered and he continually added further details, such as noting that the Christmas workshop was at the North Pole. Nast presented Santa Claus as a contemporary figure in touch with the modern world and happy to use new-fangled inventions such as the telephone. Moore’s poem and Nast’s illustration did not appear together until 1869, but it was clear that Nast’s depiction was of “the bluff, honest Santa Claus of The Night Before Christmas”, as later confirmed by his American publisher. In 1890, the same publisher wrote of Nast’s Christmas drawings that “His Santa Claus is old Father Christmas himself”. And this was because Nast had made it so.

Uniting British and American symbols

By 1890, England’s Father Christmas had been rebooted, and now he and the American newcomer had effectively become one and the same. Yet to treat the evolution of Britain’s Christmas figure as resulting from some kind of hostile takeover would be wrong. Rather, it would be more accurate to regard this transformation as a case of Santa Claus co-opting the older figure into a new kind of Christmas.

To treat the evolution of Britain’s Christmas figure as resulting from some kind of hostile takeover would be wrong

The English Father Christmas had certainly been less well defined than his American cousin and moreover was rather less ancient than might be first thought. Aside from one brief mention in a 15th-century carol, he did not become the incarnation of the spirit of Christmas until his creation by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones as part of a 1616 masque for King James I and VI. The masque gave Father Christmas the identity of ‘Captain Christmas’ – and also gave him 10 children, including Misrule, Carol and New Year’s Gift – and featured the good Captain battling to save the festive season in the face of attacks by Puritans, people who (like Governor Bradford) preferred no festivity at all. Yet, in spite of his royal beginning and further jousts against his puritan enemies, Father Christmas was, for many decades, to be a marginal figure. Even his red robes were a later addition. The Father Christmas-like ‘Ghost of Christmas Present’ in John Leech’s illustration for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, for example, wears green.

The Ghost of Christmas Present appears in Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, illustrated by John Leech. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

What brought the dual Santa Claus/Father Christmas to the fore, on both sides of the Atlantic, was a change in the very way that Christmas was celebrated. Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and Charles Dickens, though preeminent, were just three among the many writers that described a new element of Christmas that gained popularity during the 19th century. This was the festival’s new focus on children and the family, which made it a time of homely good cheer and of gift-giving within the home. In turn, the Christmas season was made yet more magical for small children through the anticipation and excitement that their stocking presents were to be brought by the jolly and benevolent Father Christmas/Santa Claus. In that sense, as Gerry Bowler writes in Santa Claus: A Biography: “He was not just a gift-bringer; he was a gift in himself.”

Santa Claus speaking to a child on the telephone
Santa Claus speaking to a child on the telephone, based on a Thomas Nast illustration. (Image by Alamy)

Santa Claus, as drawn by Thomas Nast and, increasingly, by many others, became the standard bearer of the newly defined secular part of Christmas. However, he was just one of its elements, as captured in a wealth of 19th-century Christmas literature that reached across the Atlantic from one English-speaking nation to the other. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) is one example of this process, while Washington Irving’s Sketch Book (1819/20), with its tales of a ‘traditional’ English Christmas, is another.

Santa Claus’ expanding Christmas presence

Very gradually from the 1820s to the late 1860s and far more rapidly from that time forward, the commercial value of Christmas was increasingly exploited. Within a few years of Nast’s first depiction, Santa Claus began to be the face of Christmas consumerism and, over the past century and a half, he has been co-opted to endorse a vast variety of products for both children and adults. By the 1870s, the cultural exchange between Britain and America led to his introduction into Britain and its empire, where he took the name of Father Christmas but retained the character of Santa Claus.

By the end of the century, Father Christmas was a fixture of the English festive season, extensively used in advertising and even putting in ‘personal appearances’ in the new American-inspired department stores. As the standard bearer of the new consumer Christmas, the advance of Santa Claus was rapid – he reached Japan, for instance, as early as 1914 – and Santa Claus became a global phenomenon. Key to his success in Britain, he had the advantage of a shared language, and the international spread of English is one reason for his ever-increasing popularity around the world.

Santa Clause in Japan
Santa Claus reached Japan, for instance, as early as 1914. (Image Public Domain)

But even more important has been the international domination of American media. Just as he subsumed Father Christmas, Santa Claus has become the doppelgänger for other national seasonal gift-bringers, such as Père Noël in France and the Weihnachtsmann in Germany. Other figures have been supplanted, as with the sad La Befana in Italy, who is now overshadowed by the far jollier Babbo Natale (literally ‘Daddy Christmas’).

Over the years, Santa’s influence has extended to taking precedence over the gift bringers with festivals on other dates in December. These even include St Nicholas (the original Sinterklaas and his very prototype) whose day is 6 December – though St Nicholas’s Day is still remembered in a number of countries, because two days of stocking presents are obviously more popular than one.

As for Thanksgiving, the American holiday that Governor Bradford was actually among the first to celebrate, it has long taken second place to Christmas, the holiday he tried so hard to ignore.

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George Goodwin FRHistS FRSA is a Makin Fellow of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.  He is the author of Christmas Traditions: A Celebration of Festive Lore (British Library Publishing 2019, £12.99)  There are still a few tickets available for his entertaining talk on Christmas Traditions on Tuesday 10 December at the British Library