The Definitive History of Santa Claus


For the second time in your life, you’re going to need to forget everything you think you know about Santa Claus.

While the first big revelation all those years ago may have been fraught with disappointment, the true history of how the big, jolly man in the red suit came to be is completely fascinating and filled with the quirky enchantment we’ve come to expect from Christmas.

In the story we’re about to tell you, the legend of Santa spans multiple continents, assumes many different identities, gets hijacked by first settlers in colonial America, takes a trip through the Civil War, and gets a makeover from a New York advertising firm - thanks to the best known soft drink in the world.     

Let’s start at the beginning

If you were to ask people where the legend of Santa Claus began, they’d probably start by telling you that the name “Santa” is merely a moniker for Saint Nicholas, a man who existed a long time ago and was renowned for his generosity toward children.

We hear about Saint Nick in carols like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and stories like The Night Before Christmas, but beyond that the man remains a bit of a mystery.

By all accounts, his story begins in the fourth century AD in what is now modern-day Turkey. A man named Nicholas became the bishop of a village called Myra. He was later canonised, and soon became one of the most popular saints in Christianity.

That’s about all we know for sure but much of the folklore surrounding Saint Nick speaks of his kindness and generosity toward children, in a world where those attitudes weren’t easy to find.  

Despite being the patron saint of many European countries including Russia, Austria, Belgium, France and Germany, it was in the Netherlands where we first began to see some semblance of the Santa Claus we’re familiar with today.

Each year, the much-loved saint was honoured during the Feast of Saint Nicholas (or Sint-Nikolaas), where parents would leave gifts out for their children, who naturally believed Saint Nicholas had paid them a visit during the night.   

Unlike the modern depictions of Santa, the Dutch version of Saint Nick rode on a donkey and wore a tall pointy bishop’s hat.

In the same way kids today leave out a glass of milk with some cookies for Santa and his reindeer, Dutch children would fill their clogs with straw and leave them out for the donkey to eat.

When they woke the next morning, they’d find the straw gone and their shoes packed with presents.

Santa’s move to America 

Like most myths, the story of Saint Nicholas evolved and became embellished over the years and - given their fondness for him - it’s hardly surprising to learn that in 1664, the legend of Saint Nicholas travelled across the Atlantic to Dutch colony of New Amsterdam; or as it’s known today, New York City.

In the 200 years that followed, and as a means of preserving their culture and traditions in the face of British settlement, a group of Dutch intellectuals gathered together and called themselves the "Knickerbockers."

A prominent member of the group was a writer named Washington Irving, who published a book called The Knickerbocker's History of New York, containing satirical versions of Dutch traditions and stories.

Throughout the book there were several dozen references to a "Sinter Klaas" - an adaptation of "Sint Nikolaas" - accompanied by details of him flying across the sky in a wagon and dropped presents down chimneys for good little girls and boys.

Washington's wild, endearing description of the saint very quickly became known to New Yorkers. The English settlers enthusiastically adopted the joyful Dutch celebrations of St. Nicholas' Day, and gradually began to combine them with their own traditions of celebrating Christmas and the new year.

When it comes to pronunciation, it’s easy to see how “Sinter Klaas” could translate to “Santa Claus” when you apply the accent of an English-speaking New Yorker.

Clement Clarke Moore and the Night Before Christmas

Clement Clarke Moore was a friend of Washington Irving, and another important contributor to the picture of Santa we have today.

Teresa Chris, author of the book The Story of Santa Claus, wrote that in 1822, Moore sat down to write his children a Christmas poem, having been inspired by Irving's tales.

Clement’s poem, originally titled A Visit from St. Nicholas, soon became known as the classic The Night Before Christmas and was so popular that within a decade it had become canon with regard to the Santa legend.

When writing the poem, Teresa said Clement made a few alterations to the Sinter Klaas legend to make the story more relatable to people from a British/Anglo background, and it’s interesting to note how his alterations still manifest in the Santa mythology of today.   

"The clogs the Dutch children left by the chimney corner on December 6 became something all children could relate to in cold weather - stockings, and the wagon became a "miniature sleigh" pulled by "eight tiny reindeer," Teresa wrote in her book.

The horse drawn sleigh with its bells was a common means of transport for the English, and substituting horses with reindeer added an element of mystery to Saint Nick, as though he was from an ice-capped Northern land, where few people had traveled, somewhere secluded from the world. 

It’s believed that Clement never intended for anyone other than his family to hear A Visit From St. Nicholas. He allegedly even refused to admit he was the author. Despite his objections, the poem wound up printed anonymously in the New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Some say it was thanks to Clement’s wife Catharine Taylor who liked the story so much that she sent copies to her friends.

The mythology connecting Santa with the Christmas period had been well and truly established by this stage, but there was still some discrepancy around what exactly Santa looked like.

Thomas Nast and the American Civil War

In the mid-1800s, it was popular to draw Santa Claus either in his bishop's robes or as a man with a pointed hat, long coat, and straight beard. It wasn’t uncommon to see Santa drawn as quite tall and gaunt. 

This changed in 1863, when Harper's Weekly hired a 21-year-old named Thomas Nast to draw a picture of Santa Claus bringing gifts to troops fighting in the American Civil War. 

The Santa that Thomas drew combined Clement's description of Saint Nicholas from The Night Before Christmas with the all too familiar propaganda image of Uncle Sam.

Nast's Santa was a jolly, roly-poly old man who wore a star-spangled jacket, striped pants, and a cap.

"The drawing boosted the spirits of soldiers and civilians alike because it showed that the spirit of Christmas had come to the Civil War," wrote historian James I. Robertson.

It was so popular, that every year, for 40 years, when the magazine asked Nast to draw Santas, he stuck with the same concept - although he did eventually drop the stars and stripes in favor of a plain wool suit.

Although this woolen suit was sometime green, Nast popularised Saint Nick’s famous red clothes, more than four decades prior to The Coca‑Cola Company’s depiction of Santa - contrary to the rumour that “Coca‑Cola made Santa red”. 

The History of Coca‑Cola and Santa Claus

If the American Santa Claus took shape by repetition, then it’s fair to say that Coca‑Cola led the charge through much of the 20th century - although it would be unfair to say Coca‑Cola invented Santa.

The company’s relationship with Santa began in the 1920s, when Coca‑Colafirst began advertising in American magazines like The Saturday Evening Postduring the festive season.

The ads used images of a man dressed as Santa, not dissimilar in appearance to the Santa Claus in Thomas Nast’s depiction from the mid-1800s. This Santa was usually depicted outside the world’s largest soda fountain or visiting high profile department stores, and things stayed that way up until the 1930s.

Christmas advertising had become a powerful part of Coca‑Cola’s business operations. In 1931 the company commissioned the services of D’Arcy Advertising Agency and Michigan-born artist Haddon Sundblom to create a campaign featuring a more wholesome and approachable Santa Claus - something that captured the true essence of Santa himself, and wasn’t just a man dressed up in a costume.  

For his inspiration, Haddon turned to Clement’s The Night Before Christmas. The description of Santa as a “jolly old elf” dressed in red furs who goes down chimneys to give children their gifts was instrumental in laying the foundations for our image of modern Santa Claus.

The poem described Santa as a dwarfish "jolly old elf," dressed in red furs who goes down chimneys to give children their gifts. Clement's account was so vivid and compelling that it became the standard.

In the early days Haddon called upon his friend, retired salesman Lou Prentiss, to act as a live model on which he based his images. When Lou passed away Sundblom used himself as a model and painted while looking into a mirror.

From 1931 to 1964, Coca‑Cola advertising showed Santa delivering toys (and playing with them!), pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, visiting with the children who stayed up to greet him and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes.

Haddon’s Santa appeared regularly in The Saturday Evening Post as well as in Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, The New Yorker and more.

People paid such close attention to the Coca‑Cola Santa images that when anything changed they sent letters to The Coca‑Cola Company. One year, Santa's large belt was backwards (perhaps because Haddon was painting via a mirror). Another year Santa Claus appeared without a wedding ring causing fans to write asking what happened to Mrs Claus.

Haddon created his final version of Santa Claus in 1964 but for several decades to follow Coca‑Cola advertising featured images of Santa based on Haddon’s original works.

Santa today

There has been little change to the popular representation of Santa Claus since the 1960s. Sure, he may wear board shorts on Aussie Christmas cards but he still rocks a beard. On the side of the Coca‑Cola Christmas trucks in Australia he’s still glowing with his shiny cheeks and twinkly eyes.

These days Santa can be emailed directly and tracked online as he flies through the sky. It’s likely he and Mrs Claus run the world’s best supply chain and his elves have Hollywood status.

But we’ll still leave the reindeers a carrot on Christmas eve (Australia), put our shoes out (the Netherlands) or leave him rice porridge with cinnamon sugar (Denmark). Great stories will always have a life of their own.

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