My novella Santa’s Mail-Order Bride incorporates a number of American Christmas traditions, including the beloved character of Santa Claus. Our present-day version of Santa may appear contemporary, but the venerable gift-giver has a long history.
Santa started with a real person. Saint Nicholas, born in the 3rd century in a village in present-day Turkey, is said to have spent his inheritance to help the needy, and he had a special love for children. It’s from his generous nature we get a gift-giving Santa.
Fast forward to 18th century America where immigrants from Holland brought with them the tradition of Sinterklaas, who became “Santa Claus.” Woodcuts distributed in 1804 show images of an old man in a robe and long white beard filling colonial stockings with fruit and toys.
In 1823, an anonymous poem (later acknowledged to have been penned by Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister), took the legend another step. Entitled An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas or The Night Before Christmas. Moore’s poem is largely responsible for the image of Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf” with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a nod of his head. This is also where we first have references of flying reindeer and Santa’s sleigh.
But we have American artist Thomas Nast to thank for the richest legends we have today surrounding Santa Claus. From 1863 through 1886, Nast contributed 33 Christmas drawings to Harper’s Weekly with references to Santa.
To the left is the most familiar Santa “portrait” he did in 1881. It is Nast who gave Santa his familiar suit, his North Pole workshop, the elves and his wife, Mrs. Claus.
America’s Victorians were very familiar with Santa and his legend.
Department store Santa’s popped up at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century.
Santa’s on parade became a popular theme in towns and cities, and in the 1930s, Santa received “contemporary” red costume.
Yes, Santa’s reputation reaches far back in history, and at the heart of his character we find love and generosity, and a special kind of magic that makes the world a better place.
Merry Christmas, Santa!