The History of Santa Claus in Pictures 1200 A.D. to 2000 A.D.
From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus
In the western world there are few characters in our mythology who arouse such joy and excitement at just the mention of his name. He has many by the way, and no matter which is used, there is little doubt the listener will understand of whom you speak.
He is known as Saint Nicholoas, St. Nick, Sinterklass, Père Noël, Father Christmas, Santa Claus, and many others. He is a beloved and deeply cherished figure who is loved, not only for his charity, goodwill and benevolence, but also for the way he brings those particular qualities to life by inspiring the human race to join him in his quest to spread gladness and mirth. Throughout the centuries he has steadily been an excellent and worthy example of the joy we can bring, and the good we can achieve when we give of ourselves to others.
Like all who share the space of planet earth our physical appearance has changed some throughout our lives. His life has been quite a bit longer than all of ours, so his metamorphosis has been more profound perhaps.
The purpose of this article is to travel back to the earliest origins of the figure we know as Santa Claus and see how he has changed over the many years of his charitable mission on earth.
So, put on your snow caps, slide on your boots, grab a cup of hot cocoa, and let’s journey on a sleigh ride through history.
G.K. Chesterton once said something like, ‘It is easier to do legendary things than to be the sort of man men make legends about.’ Or again, ‘King Alfred is not a legend in the sense that King Arthur may be a legend; that is, in the sense that he may possibly be a lie. But King Alfred is a legend in this broader and more human sense, that the legends are the most important things about him.’
Saint Nicholas is like that: whatever history lies behind the legends, it is certainly true that the legends have become the most important things about him. But this leads us to Chesterton’s other point: what sort of man must Nicholas have been that men would tell such tales of him? A man worthy of better treatment than he gets in most cartoons and commercials these days.William Chad Newsom, author of The Nicholas Book: A Legend of Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas, The Bishop of Myra, circa 1200 A.D.
The evolution of the modern day Santa Claus has it’s earliest origins in the very real, and non-mythical Christian saint of the 4th century A.D named Saint Nicholas. Also known as Nicholas of Myra or the Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas was deeply admired and greatly loved for the life of charity he lived. Throughout his life of service he became well-known for various acts of charity and kindness, such as the tradition of secretly leaving coins in people’s shoes. This practice was generally celebrated on the feast day of St. Nicholas and is the basis for the modern-day Santa Claus tradition of what has evolved into the leaving out of stockings on Christmas Eve.
This painting of the great saint is known as the Icon of St. Nicholas, and is attributed to an unknown Russian painter, likely from the 13th Century. The original currently resides in the
Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.
1300 A.D. - 1399 A.D.
Throughout the 14th Century Saint Nicholas was revered, as in the previous centuries, as the Christian saint of the 4th century who helps children and those in need.
This painting is by Vitale Da Bologna from the 14th century, and is named ‘St. Nicholas Helping Children’. The scene featuring St. Nicholas arriving in the middle of the night to bring some kind of gift to children is reminiscent of the modern day Santa Claus traditions. The original work is housed in The Athenaeum.
1400 A.D. - 1499 A.D.
As we travel into the 15th century, we see our beloved Saint Nicholas has changed very little. Nicholas has retained his place in art, literature and folklore as the great Bishop of Myra, ever intent on flooding the world with goodwill.
In this painting entitled ‘The Dowry for the Three Virgins’ from circa 1425 by Gentile de Fabriano, we see the Bishop climbing up to the window of three young girls to provide them with a dowry. This painting depicts one of St. Nicholas’s most famous acts. The story goes that he heard tell of a poor man in town with three daughters who had no dowry. The lack of a dowry in those days would likely have caused the girls to remain unmarried, and thus, in all likelihood, force them into prostitution.
When Nicholas heard this he decided to help the family. In the dead of night he climbed up to the window of the young girl’s room, and quietly tossed in 3 purses of gold coins so that each girl would have a dowry and be wed.
The immense goodness imbued in this act is no doubt one of the reasons Saint Nicholas is revered to this day as the very personification of altruistic charity.
Again we see glimpses of the modern day Santa Claus in this story as he arrives in the dead of night to leave gifts while the receiver sleeps.
1500 A.D. - 1599 A.D.
The Winds of Reformation
The 16th century would become a time of intense change and reform in the Christian world. The Protestant Reformation was sweeping across Europe, and with it came new attitudes and ideas with regards to the old ways of Christian worship.
The saints of old, and the feasts and customs surrounding them, became targets of the religious reforms taking place, and man
y were abolished. The Feast of St. Nicholas and St. Nicholas Day were caught up in these changes, and the great saint would, for a while, remain less venerated than in previous centuries.
This sculpture of St. Nicholas was carved during the uncertain and changing times of the 16th century.
1600 A.D. - 1699 A.D.
Father Christmas Arrives in Britain
With the Protestant Reformation still raging in full force, the 17th century became a time of continued change to the ancient Christian traditions, festivals and icons. The Puritan forces in Britain, led by Oliver Cromwell, were instrumental in the condemnation and abolition of many such traditions which they deemed decadent and sinful.
In 1644 Cromwell issued an Act of Parliament officially banning the celebration of Christmas and all customs associated therewith. The decree was widely criticized, and disregarded en masse, although Christmas celebrations were generally held in secret.
During this time of abolition there arose several writings from various dissenting authors in opposition to the ban on the holy day. Many of these writings helped to establish the personification of Christmas as a merry old gentleman with such personal characteristics as white hair and rosy cheeks who cared for the poor.
One such writing was a pamphlet by Josiah King entitled ‘The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas’ where he is illustrated and described with certain physical characteristics similar to that of the modern day Santa Claus.
Christmas was reinstated in 1686 as a national holy day, but the discussion surrounding the abolition of Christmas continued, as did the growth of the legend of Father Christmas.
St. Nicholas had been removed by force, and it is during this time that we begin to see the birth of secular figures, like Father Christmas. At this time the two had not become merged into the modern day figure we know as Santa Claus. Both were entirely separate entities in most people’s minds, but nevertheless the advent of that amalgamation had begun.
Change in America
By the end of the century the American colonies had won their independence from Britain, and there came with that victory a shifting away from British elements of folklore and tradition that had dominated the colonies up to that point. So, at least in America, Father Christmas became far less celebrated, and people in the newly formed United States began to gravitate more toward Dutch traditions.
The Dutch had, for centuries celebrated St. Nicholas in the personage of Sinterklass, as a saintly and gentle holiday figure who gave gifts before the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th. Traditional descriptions and illustrations of Sinterklass depict him as an elderly gentleman with a long white beard adorned in shiny red attire.
The movement of the Americans toward the Dutch tradition of Sinterklass would help to, in the next century, begin to shape many of the characteristics we see in the modern Santa.
It is believed that name Santa Claus was first used in America at the end of this century as an Americanized pronunciation of the name Sinterklass.
1700 A.D.-1799 A.D.
The 1700’s would see the continuation of traditional observances of the legends of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas across the Christian world for the better part of the century. During this time in England Father Christmas became known by other names such as ‘Olde Father Christmas’ or just ‘Christmas’.
Many variations of his personal traits and preferential attire emerged, such as his adornment in green cloaks, holly-trimmed hat, even arriving riding upon a goat.
The 19th Century:
A Right Jolly Old Elf
The dawn of the 19th century would bring incredible change to the figure of St. Nicholas, particularly in America. It is during this century that the figures of St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Sinterklass, and the many other figures in mythology and folklore upon which he is based, would merge together as one into the modern day Santa Claus.
At the dawn of the 1800’s, the world was becoming a different place. The American colonies were now a new, independent country, and with it came a whole new set of ideas, thoughts, philosophies and traditions in the Americas. Small hints of old traditions mixed with unique, American touches brought fully Americanized versions of old world culture into being.
However, very few underwent this Americanization as thoroughly as St. Nicholas.
In 1821 the book ‘The Children’s friend. Number III. : A New-Year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve. Part III.’, was first published by William B. Gilley, no. 92 Broadway in New York. On the
cover it boasted that it contained ‘Eight Coloured Engravings”. One of these engravings was a picture of a man wearing a red jacket, large fur cap and brown beard driving a single-reindeer sleigh with bags of toys and ‘rewards’ in the back.
The text of the picture reads:
“Old Santeclaus with much delight
His Reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow
To bring his yearly gifts to you”
Here we begin to see the the transformation from the saintly Bishop of Myra to the secular, gift-bringing gentleman begin to take shape.
If any one piece of literature helped clearly define the characteristics of the modern day Santa Claus it is the book ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ which is commonly known as ‘ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas‘ – it’s incredibly famous opening line.
Originally published anonymously, years later author Clement C. Moore took responsibility for the penning of the great poem, and it is generally attributed to him as a part of his body of work, although there is some debate regarding actual authorship.
Whoever wrote this famous piece, our conceptions of Santa Claus would be forever changed by it. For the first time we see St. Nicholas described as a chubby and small elf who arrives on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. He also, for the first time, climbs down a chimney with a sack of toys on his back.
Although the sleigh had been given to him in the recent past we now see it is pulled by a team of ‘8 tiny reindeer‘ and they are first given names – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.
In 1863 artist Thomas Nast first drew an image of Santa Claus for the weekly publication Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s depiction of St. Nick was a unique combination of traditional traits, certain features from ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas‘ by Clement Clark Moore, and new ideas that Nast invented himself. Nast would draw Santa for the publication many times between 1863-1886, each time solidifying the look and idea of the new St. Nicholas in the minds of people across the world.
The result would be the creation of the complete picture of the modern day Santa Claus, including most of what we understand today about where he lives, how he completes his work, and why.
This illustration from 1863 is Nast’s first depiction of Santa in Harper’s Weekly. While the content of the image has very little holiday imagery, it would begin Nast’s series of iconic depictions of Santa.
Thomas Nast’s contemporary depictions of Santa Claus in the Victorian age came to fullness when he drew perhaps the most iconic image of Santa Claus ever drawn. This image of Santa was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881, and fully cemented the complete idea of the modern Santa throughout the world.
Here he is portrayed as a jolly elfish man of short stature, large belly, bushy white beard, and is majestically arrayed in his most famous attire including a red fur outfit, smoking a pipe, and laden with gifts for boys and girls around the world.
This is the image of Santa Claus that is celebrated and loved today. This image is still reproduced each year during the holidays, and is one of the most cherished images of St. Nicholas ever created.
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2000 and Beyond
Although the world has changed much from the 19th, 20th and into the 21st centuries, our ideas of Santa Claus have remained, for the most part, relatively unchanged. The idea of St. Nicholas arriving on Christmas Eve, laden with a sack of toys for good little girls and boys, riding a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer are still with us today.
As we move through the 21st century how will our ideas of St. Nicholas evolve? How will our understanding of him or our depictions change as we travel through this modern age? It is difficult to tell, but one thing is for sure – as long as society values the saintly, selfless, charitable acts that are attributed to St. Nicholas we will always find a place in our hearts and homes for Santa Claus, no matter what he may look like.