Santa Claus is a New Yorker of Dutch descent who emerged in the early part of the 19th century. Christmas in New York in the late 1700s was a riotous affair, and the only seasonal gift you were likely to be given was a punch on the nose. Middle-class New Yorkers fancied a more sober celebration. and in 1804 the antiquarian John Pintard founded a historical society and hit on the 4th-century St Nicholas – patron saint of children and gift-giving – as the benevolent new symbol of the city.
The date of St Nicholas’s death, 6 December 343, had been widely observed in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and especially in the Netherlands, where to this day 5-6 December is still the principal occasion for present-giving, when Sinterklaas and his politically incorrect helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) dish out rewards to good children.
Pintard took these traditions and grafted them on to the celebration of Christmas in New York, where a large part of the population was of Dutch heritage, with Sinterklaas (itself a contraction of Sint Nicolaas) emerging as Sancte Claus.
At this point, images of Sancte Claus – as drawn, for example, by the artist Alexander Anderson for Pintard’s St Nicholas Day dinner in 1810 – were still in black and white and decidedly episcopal, showing St Nicholas in one frame and some sleepy children hanging up their stockings next to the fireplace in an adjoining one. The church and commercialism were starting their 200-year-long battle.
Sancte Claus was quickly fleshed out in the years after 1804, first by Washington Irving, who made fun of Dutch traditions in his History of New York, and then, crucially, in the 1823 poem “A Visit from St Nicholas”. Published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel, the poem was later claimed by Clement Clarke Moore, though some scholars believe it was written by Henry Livingston Jr. It was this poem, better known as “The Night Before Christmas”, which heralded the modern notion of Santa Claus.
The poem gave us the reindeer – “So up to the housetop the coursers they flew. With the sleigh full of toys, and St Nicholas too”
– and a potent image of Santa.
“He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack. His eyes – how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow; The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath; He had a broad face and a little round belly. That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.”
The jolly, impish, ho-ho-ho-ing Santa – a contrast to the more severe European figure, who was quite likely to give naughty children a whack with a cane – was born. But he was not yet dressed in red, and was more likely to be apparelled in an unappealing shade of brown, though plenty of other colours featured too – in an 1864 edition of “The Night Before Christmas” a curiously feline Santa is pictured in a fetching shade of yellow (even his sack is yellow).
The tradition of him wearing red began in the 1870s with the American cartoonist Thomas Nast, who introduced the red suit and cap, white fur lining and buckled black belt. Nast produced numerous drawings of Santa for Harper’s Weekly over a period of more than 20 years and, having first portrayed him in the Stars and Stripes (Nast was a passionate supporter of the union side in the American civil war) and in green, eventually achieved a representation of the Santa we know that owed much in spirit to “The Night Before Christmas”. His 1881 image of Santa quickly became something akin to an official portrait.
Why Nast settled on red is hard to say. Some have suggested there was a link with the iconography of the original St Nicholas, who is often depicted in red robes, but more likely is that it just felt aesthetically right, chiming with the rosy-cheeked, red-nosed Santa of the poem, and with the red outfit playing off the whiteness of the fur, beard and snow – Nast was the first to portray Santa as a native of the North Pole.
Nast’s Santa may also have owed something to the English tradition of Father Christmas, which is quite different from the St Nicholas story. The latter was written out of Christmas celebrations in England after Henry VIII’s split with Rome in the 1530s, and, Brexit-style, we settled instead on our own lord of misrule, a champion of revelry used as a stick with which to beat the Christmas-hating puritans. The Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a direct descendent of the generous, expansive, free-spirited 17th-century Sir Christmas or Lord Christmas, and, even though he wears a fur-lined green robe, his energy and sense of fun are akin to those of Nast’s Santa.
Despite Nast’s huge influence, the red-robed Santa had still not banished all rivals by the turn of the 20th century, and L Frank Baum’s 1902 book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was perfectly happy to put a grey-suited Santa on its cover. But within a generation the battle was over, and by the mid-1930s no self-respecting Santa would have been seen in anything but red.
The first part of red’s triumph came with the illustrations of JC Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell, especially their covers for the Saturday Evening Post in the 1920s. Both took the externals Nast had laid down but sought to humanise Santa by portraying him more naturalistically than their predecessor.
The definitive image of the red-robed one was, however, the product of hard-nosed commercialism. Coca-Cola wanted to boost its winter sales and hit on the idea of Santa being a coke drinker in a campaign tagged “Thirst Knows No Season”. They used Santa imagery throughout the 1920s, but only in 1931 did they produce an ad the public really warmed to when they commissioned a painting by Haddon Sundblom, an American artist of Swedish and Finnish heritage (many of the Americans responsible for creating the modern Santa have roots in the Europe of St Nicholas
Sundblom conjured up an idealised Santa – vast of stomach, red of face, with little round spectacles; so perpetually jolly and grinning that it must have been exhausting for the old fellow.
Sundblom carried on doing Coca-Cola’s Christmas ads until the mid-1960s, and 30 years of his coke-swigging Santas meant St Nick could never again be dressed in anything other than red or, indeed, be seen scowling at naughty children. Traditional ecclesiastical practices may be strong, but they are no match for Madison Avenue.