Origins of Santa Claus
- Frank Riga, PhD, emeritus professor of English at Canisius College
Not the Best Role Model
His coming makes the children sick with anticipation and when he arrives in the dead of night, he spoils them rotten with candy and toys. If that’s not enough, he’s overweight and smokes. How can such an obvious candidate for a coronary be any kind of role model? But then, what kid has ever wanted to grow up to be Santa Claus?
He’s a grand figure of a man, conspicuous both in consumption and in distribution. He’s a one-man economic upturn who lives in the land of the midnight sun, where the daytime is 24 hours long. As one wag from the local business school put it, he had to take up residence there because his production schedule required more than a regulation day to meet demand. His stock, however, doesn’t appear in Standard and Poor’s, and even though he is always in red, no one, not even the elves, has ever attempted a leverage buy-out. He’s solvent.
Santa Claus came into history as a saint, but though his origins were in Turkey, he’s better known for his association with the Christmas turkey, an American bird. He’s big in size and soul, and it took Americans to celebrate him properly. Or, more precisely, it took New Yorkers to create the verbal and graphic images by which he is recognized and known throughout the world. As with so many Americans, much of the Old World went into his making, and yet he manifests that expansive optimism and generosity that may not be the exclusive property of Americans but that has not been stinted in the American character. Representing a tradition of open-handed munificence, he is a fitting image for Christmas in America.
St. Nicholas Comes to the New World
Washington Irving, the great New York writer, was his first American biographer. As Irving tells us in Diedrick Nickerbocker’s History of New York, 1809, St. Nicholas came to the New World as the carved figurehead on the Dutch ship Goede Vrouw. There, he was “equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose and a pipe that reached to the end of a bowsprit.” That’s certainly not the jolly old elf that we are accustomed to, but Irving’s picture is also not an accurate reflection of the fourth-century Bishop of Myra who, by the Middle Ages, was only slightly less popular than the Virgin and her Son.
St. Nicholas was so well-liked that, before Rome bumped him from the universal calendar of saints in 1969, he had become the patron of children, students, Russia, bankers, sailors, pawn brokers, vagabonds, and thieves. In Shakespeare’s time, traveling brigands and highwaymen were known as “St. Nicholas clerks,” and in Henry IV, Part I, one character tells such a rascal, “I know thou worshippest St. Nicholas as truly as any man of falsehood may.” This democratic appeal of the good saint attests to his generosity of spirit and helps explain why Americans have taken him to their hearts.
Giver of Gifts and Mode of Transportation
Yet if Irving’s portrait of St. Nicholas defeats our expectations and can make no claim to historic accuracy, his description of the saint’s characteristic behavior sets the unwavering pattern. In The History of New York, Irving records “the pious ceremony” of hanging stockings on the chimney on St. Nicholas Eve, stockings that were “always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.” Though he had not yet acquired his reindeer, he was depicted as flying about in a wagon. In a dream of Oloffe Van Kortlandt, chronicled in Irving’s History, St. Nicholas smoked his pipe, “and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.” Another New Yorker would divine the significance of the finger-nose conjunction.
Irving’s History was still popular a dozen years later when, in 1822, Dr. Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem for his children. These doggerel verses, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” have become the official St. Nicholas vade mecum. A children’s book of 1821, A New Year’s Present to the Little Ones, had shown St. Nicholas in a sleigh being drawn by one reindeer, presumably his first appearance without a wagon and horse. Moore seized upon the suggestion – whether from the children’s book or from some other source – increased the team of reindeer to eight, gave them some fanciful names, and conventionalized the image of St. Nick and his coursers for the next 125 years. Gene Autry’s song hit of 1949 would add another courser to the team, though the same Rudolph would be the most prosaic in the list. The popularity of Gene Autry’s “Rudolph” is only surpassed by “White Christmas,” a song written by another New York Irving – Irving Berlin – who would also get a toe-hold in the creation of Christmas as we know it.
Moore’s description regularized the Santa Claus iconography. Not only did he give us the sleigh and the eight reindeer, but also the furry suit filled to bursting with a belly that shakes like jelly. Irving, too, had stockings hung by the chimney but Santa’s entrance and exit, up and down the chimney, was Moore’s. Yet Irving gave Moore the secret of the transport – the finger at the side of a nose. What powers are activated by the said placement of the finger remain undisclosed but we all know the gesture works, and in a pragmatic country like the U.S., such utility is reason enough for admiration.
Moore himself apparently never wrote down the verses until some 40 years after he composed them. His wife, Eliza, however, preserved his creation in her commonplace book when, in 1823, a friend saw it and made a copy. The friend sent the poem to the Troy Sentinel, where it was published anonymously. Clement Moore, the erudite New York City college professor, would have preferred fame for his Hebrew dictionary or his translation of the Roman satirist Juvenal or for his other poems. But he is now remembered only for some doggerel verses, composed to entertain his own children and published without his consent. As the man who invented Santa Claus – a claim with some merit – Moore channeled the influence of that earlier fellow New Yorker, Washing Irving, and his singular creation would be given new life by a later New Yorker, the great political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus
Born in Germany, Thomas Nast emigrated to New York City in 1846 when he was six years old. As one of his grandchildren speculates, part of his baggage “was his love of the German celebration of Christmas, with stockings hung by the chimney for the Christmas Eve visit of Pelznickol.” Pelznickol, or Furry Nicholas, was the Bavarian counterpart of St. Nicholas, and his fur suit and elfin hat became Santa’s conventionalized uniform in Nasts’ drawings. Nast’s Santa first appeared in the Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly for 1862, the year that Nast read Moore’s poem. In that year, the New York Historical Society prevailed upon Moore, then 82, to write out the poem in his own hand, since no autograph copy was in existence. Nast’s first drawing was captioned, “Christmas in Camp,” showing Santa Claus and his reindeer-drawn sled among the soldiers of the Union Army. Though Santa’s suit was furry, his coat was starred and his pants were barred; that is, his suit was tailored from an American flag.
During the 40 years that separated Moore’s poem from Nast’s drawings, St. Nicholas had undergone a change of name that was inherent in his Dutch origin. His Dutch name, San Nicolaas, was already mispronounced by the Dutch themselves as Sinter Klaas. His renaming, by a further mispronunciation, fully Americanized the sedate saint. So when Nast began popularizing his portrait during the Civil War, St. Nicholas had become Santa Claus.
Through many illustrations and drawings, Nast fixed Santa’s image and behavior firmly in the American consciousness. Nast portrayed him entering the house by way of the chimney, filling stockings with candy and toys, and flying away in his reindeer-drawn sled. Nast may have discovered Santa’s permanent address, the North Pole, and with his pictures of Santa reading a ledger-book of good and bad children, he gave parents a wonderful weapon in the arsenal of threats. He also settled the question of Santa’s size: from Moore’s jolly old elf – that is, a little guy – to the large, jovial, white-bearded giant of a man, dressed in a furry suit and an elfin hat. No doubt Nast drew Santa larger than life because we expect him to be.
After the war, Nast’s political cartoons were instrumental in bringing down the Boss Tweed and his corrupt Tammany Hall gang. He also went bust in the same financial misdealing that ruined his good friend, General and former President U.S. Grant. But perhaps more than any cartoonist-illustrator before or after, Nast created some of the central images of American iconology, and including Uncle Sam, the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. Yet Nast’s most universal creation remains his Santa Claus. He must have shared this view himself, for in 1890, he collected and published Christmas Drawings for the Human Race – and the principal character was Santa Claus.
Anti-Claus - aka The Grinch
Since for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, one of the last acts in the Santa Claus drama was the appearance of his anti-type. Anti-Claus was the creation of that zany writer for children, Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, in his delightfully dreadful book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (Only a non-New Yorker could toy with the faith of millions.) The Grinch, of course, is Anti-Claus, but he resembles both the American Santa and the greatest Christmas humbugger of all, Ebeneezer Scrooge. The Grinch, in fact, is a Scrooge in Seuss clothing, and that clothing is a retailored Santa suit. Max the dog becomes Max the reindeer, and instead of delivering presents down the chimney, the Grinch uses the chimney to “stuff the tree up.” He’s a mean one, with garlic in his soul and with an American imagination that can think up a “wonderful, awful idea.” This idea was worthy of a creative with a heart two sizes too small, whose shoes were too tight, and whose head, no doubt, “wasn’t screwed on just right.” Not since Arnold Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series has any American character had such a wonderful, awful idea – to steal Christmas. This conception is only matched in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, where, enchanted by the White Witch’s curse, it’s “always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”
If it took Moore to write the words and Nast to draw the pictures of the simon-pure Santa, Dr. Seuss mustered his formidable talents in both departments to create Santa’s anti-type. This nasty Anti-Claus hates Christmas with all of its trimmings and trappings but most of all he hates to hear Christmas singing with its joy and good fellowship, its promise of peace and goodwill. So when the Grinch undergoes his conversion, he must come to realize that the toys and the tags and the trees are merely the outward sign of an inward reality, and as such, cannot be stolen. The outward images of Christmas are not Christmas, but only the way we, in our frailty, must celebrate its spirit. At his conversion, then, the Grinch’s heart grows “three sizes” larger, indicating that his rebirth is not only adequate but abundant. He is not only brought into the Christmas community, he is made the honorary host of Whoville’s Christmas feast, since “HE HIMSELF…the Grinch carved the roast beast!”
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!
So…yes Virginia – and Texas and California and Hawaii – there is a Santa Claus. Emigrating from the Old World, he has suffered a sea-change into something indelibly American. Though many have called him the materialistic and secular saint of Christmas in America, Santa Claus never takes anything for himself except, perhaps, the cookies and milk left by the children. But then, the Dutch kids did the same for St. Nicholas. In his American evolution, his appearance has changed a good deal from that of the holy and dignified Bishop of Myra, and yet the center of his character – kindness, generosity and jollity – has remained firm. So if we recognize him by his image and trappings – his sled and reindeer, his furry red suit filled to bursting, his uncanny ability, given his size, to move up and down chimneys with a wraith-like agility, his hearty Ho-Ho-Ho, and his peddler’s sack stuffed with gifts and toys – the picture is merely the hieroglyphics of a great tradition. And great traditions serve more to remind us than to instruct us. Our great tradition, Santa Claus, reminds us that Christmas is, in fact, a time of joy and plenitude just when the gray, oppressive skies of winter proclaim the opposite. Santa Claus, finally, knows little or nothing of credit cards and shopping sprees, but he does know the pleasure in giving and the joy of others’ joy.