Saint Nicholas was a kindly third century bishop famed for his generosity and kindness. He was apparently quite svelte, had little time for reindeer and definitely didn’t drink Coca Cola. So, how did Saint Nicholas become Father Christmas?
By the time of the Saint’s death on December 6 343AD he already had quite a growing reputation. During his life he’d saved sailors at sea, resurrected murdered children, cured famine in his hometown of Myra in Greece and given bags of gold to the poor.
When the first settlers arrived in America from Europe they brought the saint with them. Vikings dedicated a cathedral to him in Greenland, Columbus named a Haitian port after him, and Jacksonville in Florida was originally named Nicholas Ferry in his honor. It seemed the world could not get enough of Greece’s wonderful holy man.
Then the Reformation hit in the 16th century and worshiping saints was frowned on. However, Saint Nick was far too popular to be forgotten about for long. People continued to observe his December 6 feast day and maintained the traditions of placing nuts, apples and sweets in shoes by people’s bedside or before the fire.
Dutch immigrants to New York would bring the legend of Sinterklaas, as they called him, with them. Once Nicholas’ name made its way to the New World his appearance suddenly began to alter. Pretty quickly Klaus became Claus.
This had a lot to do with the New York Historical Society, set up by John Pintard just after the American Revolution. Nicholas became the Patron Saint of the society and also the city. Then, in 1809 Washington Irving published the satirical fiction Knickerbocker’s History of New York that featured numerous references to a rather jolly fellow named Saint Nicholas who delivered presents on horseback.
The society held its first ever Saint Nicholas anniversary day on December 6 1810 with the artist Alexander Anderson creating the first American image of Nicholas as a gift-giver. He had him placing children’s treats in stockings above a fireplace.
There was also a problem with Christmas at this point that would have an effect on where the legend of Saint Nicholas would go next. The celebration of the holiday was basically an excuse for mob law on the streets. Instead of family dinners and presents underneath the tree it was all about drunken gangs on celebrating the end of the harvest season and terrorizing rich folk. The rich folks did not like to be terrorized and so they set about domesticating the unruly beast that was Christmas.
In 1821 we had the publication of The Children’s Friend, a book to suit the newly civilized celebration. In it Santa Claus arrived from the North Pole in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. The poem and pictures that accompanied it would forever change the way the world saw old Nicholas. Claus would now reward good children and punish the bad and do so on Christmas Eve.
Just two short years later another poem arrived that would further cement the emerging image in the cultural psyche. It was called “A Visit from St Nicholas” although it’s better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” With its lines about a “bundle of toys he had flung on his back” and Santa’s “little round belly” it is the contemporary image of Santa Claus almost completely formed. The laugh, the beard, even emerging from the fireplace are all there and stem from this poem. The reindeer are even given names for the first time, although poor Rudolph has yet to appear.
There is one thing missing though; his red suit. The acknowledged legend is that, aptly for a holiday so associated with money, this was provided by an incredibly successful marketing campaign. This is not strictly true. Claus was already appearing in red a number of years before the Coca Cola campaign in the thirties had him appearing in the red suit.
However, there is no denying the impact of the Coca-Cola ad campaigns that began with Haddon Sunblom’s illustrations of Saint Nick holding up a glass of Coke in 1931. The little round belly swiftly ballooned, the beard was suddenly fuller and the expression was most certainly jolly. The original Saint Nicholas was nowhere to be seen.
Illustrator Thomas Nast had added Santa’s workshop in the North Pole and the list of good and bad children as far back as 1860. The final detail, of Rudolph with his funny red nose, was once more provided by a piece of advertising. The story was written by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward Company in 1939 and adapted into a song shortly after.
Rudolph would now join Santa and his reindeer on his annual gift giving expedition, delivering presents to children all over the world.
This image of Santa Claus has since been exported around the world and has replaced the more traditional European view of Saint Nicholas as the dominant perception of the annual gift giver. So while Saint Nick’s