Ho, Ho, Ho!

The familiar  figure of a jolly Santa Claus is everywhere during Christmas time: on Christmas cards, ubiquitously used in advertising, in film, and live in shopping malls and town squares. Who exactly is this character we all know and love, and where did he originate?

The jolly old elf we all recognize as the delightful deliverer of Christmas gifts to good, and sometimes naughty, children has a long history covering three continents and stretching all the way back to 280 AD. Today’s version of Santa Claus, dressed in warm red clothing trimmed with white fur, a long white beard, rotund and laughing, would be a strange vision to people several centuries ago, and we would certainly not recognize the ancient version that eventually evolved into today’s Santa Claus!

The historic roots of the Santa Claus myth stretch back to the 3rd and 4th century Turkey and the monk St. Nicholas. Born in 280 AD near what is now Myra, Turkey, St Nicholas is believed to have given away his vast inheritance, traveling the countryside giving assistance to the poor and sick. Although little factual information is known about his life, he did became a bishop at a young age and must have been a kind and generous man, as so many mythical stories tell of his enormous good deeds.

Over the centuries, he grew in popularity and was revered as a protector of children. By Renaissance times, he was one of the most popular saints in all of Europe, especially in Holland where his feast day on December 6th was joyously celebrated.

From Holland to their new home in the United States, Dutch settlers brought the tradition of Sinter Klaas, the Dutch form of Saint Nicholas’ name. By the late 1700s and early 1800s, he was a familiar character in New York where the Dutch settled. Sinter Klaas quickly evolved into the Americanized name Santa Claus and was portrayed as a rather stout Dutch sailor with a fur trimmed green coat and pipe. This imagery is quite a transformation from a thin, yet generous bishop from ancient times!

Washington Irving was one of the first to connect Santa Claus with Christmas. His descriptions were the inspiration for many writers and illustrators in the 1800s who pushed the image of Santa Claus much closer to the well-known, modern vision of a jolly, fat character, all dressed in red, delivering presents to children on Christmas Eve by slipping down the chimney.

By the early 1800s, stores began promoting Christmas shopping, and by the 1840s, newspapers joined in the holiday shopping spree with separate sections for advertisements. The first Santa appeared in a store in 1841, but just a model of him! It didn’t take long before stores featured a live Santa Claus to lure children and families to their holiday promotions.

Although ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was published in 1822, giving rise to the “jolly old elf” description of Santa, it wasn’t until 1881, when the political cartoonist Thomas Nast created a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly, that the modern version of Santa Claus was solidified. Complete with a sack of toys, dressed in bright red clothing trimmed with white fur, Nast’s version of Santa Claus stuck in the popular mind and has endured for 130 years.

The vision of Santa Claus, joyously sipping a Coke on Christmas Eve, has been an enduring icon of Christmas time since the early 1930s when the ads first appeared. The artist Fred Mizen premiered the first Coca Cola ad in the Saturday Evening Post. Haddon Sundblom took over as artist in 1931 with a much more enjoyable version of Santa, and continued to create the ads until 1964. Each successive year, a new portrait of Santa appeared during the holiday season, always a happy fellow with rosary cheeks, dressed in his fur trimmed red suit in the tradition of the Sundblom ads. If Santa could advertise Coke, he could also advertise everything from cars to razor blades!

The tradition of Santa Claus films reaches all the way back to the 1890s and continues to this day. Santa has been portrayed as a hero, an imposter, and a mischievous elf. Every Christmas, families gather to watch their favorite movies starring Santa Claus.

What would Christmas be without published letters to Santa in the local paper, Christmas Eve anchormen and women tracking his trek across the globe, and the Post Office who delivers the millions of hopeful letters? You’ll have plenty of luck finding your Santa here at our store. Don’t forget Rudolph, we have him too!

Author: Maegen

My name is Maegen and I work in the Customer Service department for Frankel's Costumes. Most of my knowledge for costumes comes from anything ranging from movies, video games and cartoons to period studies and literature. Oh, and I am a nerd.

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