No single figure is a more popular image on Christmas cards today than Santa Clause, the jolly, benevolent figure associated with abundance, joy and the Christmas spirit. Yet if not for some major changes along the way, Santa could have wound up being a pretty scary figure.
The forerunners of Santa go back hundreds of years. By the time he showed up on the first Christmas cards in the mid 1800s, his image was already partly shaped. Ancient images include the Christian Bishop of Myra (4th century), known as Saint Nicholas. Bishop of Myra was famous for his kindness to children and generosity to the poor in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey.
Then there was the mythic Norse God Odin, in the 12th century (pictured below, far left), the God of War. Odin, with his white beard, has an slight but eery resemblance to today’s Santa and apparently he was known for riding on his horse, bringing either gifts or punishments, as appropriate. He was both loved and feared since he was said to be able to read hiding thoughts.
There were various Santas, different traditions by country. As this site points out, St. Nicholas is said to arrive in Holland by boat from Spain, a more prosaic method of transport than the sleigh. But he only leaves gifts for good children and the naughty ones get left birch twigs by an ugly black dwarf.
The Finnish Santa was also a pagan figure, named Joulupukki and known for wearing goatskins and horns. But instead of giving presents, he demanded them in return for not causing trouble.
The British Father Christmas first appears as a minor pagan figure in the middle ages. Portrayed as a merry old man he was associated with feasting and drinking and the pagan festival of Yule. Disapproving of this pagan revelry in 1644, England’s puritans banned the celebration of Christmas calling it,”The Old Heathen’s Feasting Day”.
Other images appeared across Europe. In Germany, there was the Pelznickel or Belsnickle (“Furry Nicholas”) who visited naughty children in their sleep. The name originated from the fact that the person appeared to be a huge beast since he was covered from head to toe in furs.
It was actually Dutch emigrants had taken the story of a legendary gift-bringer called ‘Sinterklaas’ to America, where he eventually became known as “Santa Claus.”
Eventually, a new figure of Father Christmas emerged, representing a spirit of benevolence and good cheer in medieval England.By the 19th century, he was evolving to more of the European Saint Nicholas.
By the mid to late 1800s, of course, Santa was appearing in Christmas cards. But the image varied greatly, as artists influenced the image.
One Santa “look” came from the early 1820s, when a New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote and published a poem a year later: “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” Today it would be known by its opening line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas . . .”).
This may have been the beginning of the American version of Santa. There were the eight reindeer (all named) and Santa’s new trick of coming down the chimney. However, Moore’s Santa was still sort of shrimpy by today’s standard, a “little old driver” with a tiny sleigh.
Out of all of this began emerging a modern Santa Clause, a blend of Moore’s elf-like version and the jolly “Kriss Kringle” amalgam of the European Santas. Thomas Nast picked up the ball in 1860, influenced by Moore’s poem. Nast was the cartoonist who created the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. When he was just 21-years-old, Nast gave Santa his familiar shape: fat and jolly, with a stocking cap and a long white beard
Nast was the first to dress St. Nick in a red suit trimmed with white fur, and later dreamed up the idea that St . Nick lived at the North Pole. By then Santa was showing up everywhere in Christmas cards. The images still varied, from the jolly old fellow we know today to a more serious character, thoughtful and almost scary looking (at least to young children) (This may be a leftover from old times, when Santa Claus was often depicted as tall, thin and domineering – often with black hair and a stiff brimmed hat).
Coca-Cola Company would change all that in the 1930s, finalizing the Santa “look” we know today, creating a jollier, consistent and standardized image(More on this later)–all captured in Christmas cards along the way.