Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Monday 21st August 2017 | Manchester, UK

The History of Santa Claus

Santa Claus is the beloved figure of Christmas; his iconic look of a large man with a portly belly, wearing a red coat and hat, with a big white beard is recognised across the world. However, this holiday figure hasn’t always been pictured the way he is today and his origin is a complex story that combines different holiday figures across the world.

The origins of Santa Claus can be tracked to a 4th century priest known as Saint Nicholas. He was a Greek Christian bishop located in Lycia (modern day Turkey). He devoted much of his life to Christianity at a young age and became known for his generosity. There have been plenty of myths and stories about Saint Nicholas but one story in particular has been told throughout the centuries. In this story Nicholas met three women whose father was deeply religious but too poor to afford their dowries. No dowries meant that they wouldn’t have been able to marry and due to living in a poor family, they would have ended up becoming prostitutes. Saint Nicholas knew this and so he gave them their dowries as a present. Each morning one of the daughters would wake up to find a lump of gold under their pillow. In the centuries that followed, the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’ death (6th December) was remembered throughout Europe. On this day people would exchange gifts and take part in feasts and celebrations.

In the Netherlands Saint Nicholas was celebrated as Sinterklaas, a mythical figure similar to that of Father Christmas. As Dutch people started to immigrate to America they brought over their celebrations and Sinterklaas became known by an English nickname, Santa Claus. Between the 17th and 19th centuries an image of Santa Claus started to grow. In poetry and songs, he was described as a jolly man with a big white beard who travelled across the world delivering presents to children. In 1881 Thomas Nast’s illustration of Santa Claus was on the front cover of Harper’s Weekly January 1st edition. The image titled ‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ depicted Santa as a large, round man with a big white beard wearing a red suit with a white fluffy trim. He had presents under his arm and a pipe in his hand. Thomas Nast is largely credited as drawing the image of Santa Claus that we see today.

Despite the similarities between Santa Claus and Father Christmas, they have very different origins. Father Christmas was born out of the reaction of traditional Christians to the growing influence of Puritans following the Reformation. The Puritans believed that there was little place for large feasts and festivities during religious holidays. In order to defend Christmas festivities, traditionalist Christians personified Christmas as a jolly man who enjoyed feasts and merriment but in moderation. This depiction of Christmas continued to develop across the UK in the centuries that followed the reformation until the 19th century, when it became synonymous with Santa Claus.

The popularity of Santa Claus flourished in the US during the 19th century as shops started to have Santa Claus’ in store and ‘Santa’s Grottos’ started to pop up around the country. 20th century businesses used Santa Claus to advertise their brands during Christmas. Possibly most famously, Coca Cola started to use Santa Claus in their adverts in 1930. There is an urban myth that Coca Cola are responsible for Santa Claus’ red clothes. However, this is incorrect as not only has Santa Claus been depicted wearing red clothes since Thomas Nast’s drawing, Coca Cola aren’t even the first soft drinks company to use Santa Claus in their advertising, White Rock Beverages had used Santa Claus to advertise mineral water in 1915.

It is during the 19th and 20th centuries that the globalisation of Santa Claus started to occur. Each country in Europe would have had their own interpretation of Santa Claus, whether it was Sinterklaas in Netherlands, Pierre Noel in France or Father Christmas in the UK, but many of these started to become synonymous with the USA version of Santa Claus. This trend continued as companies started to become multinational corporations and so the US image of Santa Claus spread across the world.

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