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Friday, Nov 22, 2019

How did Santa Claus go from an austere saint to a jolly old man in red?

A look at the evolution of St Nicholas, from the 4th century Bishop of Myra to the sleigh-riding, bell-clanging Christmas icon.

art-and-culture Updated: Dec 24, 2018 08:35 IST
Jayati Bhola
Jayati Bhola
Hindustan Times
Nicholas the Bishop, famous for his good work among the poor, was cannonised in the first millennium. By the 13th century, he was a beloved figure in The Netherlands. There, St Nicholas, over time, became Sinterklaas. To this day, the official Dutch Sinterklaas (above) is a trim, bishop-ly figure in a white robe and red cape, with almost-regal long white hair and beard. He travels, incidentally, by white horse.
Nicholas the Bishop, famous for his good work among the poor, was cannonised in the first millennium. By the 13th century, he was a beloved figure in The Netherlands. There, St Nicholas, over time, became Sinterklaas. To this day, the official Dutch Sinterklaas (above) is a trim, bishop-ly figure in a white robe and red cape, with almost-regal long white hair and beard. He travels, incidentally, by white horse.
         

St Nicholas aka Santa Claus is believed to have lived around 300 AD in Patara, in modern-day Turkey (then considered part of ancient Greece). He was the Bishop of Myra, famous for his good work among the poor, his love of children, and his giving of gifts to the needy.

He is typically depicted as a slim figure clad in the red and gold robes of his religious office. Pictures show him adorned by the traditional halo used to represent good deeds, carrying a staff or a Bible or both.

So how did this rather staid image transform into jolly Christmas Eve figure we know now? Here’s a look at the evolution of Santa Claus from charitable icon to saint to North Pole legend.

Nicholas the Bishop of Myra is believed to have lived around 300 AD in Patara, in modern-day Turkey.
Nicholas the Bishop of Myra is believed to have lived around 300 AD in Patara, in modern-day Turkey.

13th century: Nicholas the Bishop of Myra was cannonised or declared a saint in the first millennium. By the 13th century, the Dutch were celebrating a tradition in his honour of putting coins in tattered shoes left outside the homes of the poor. St Nicholas did it, they would say. Over time, St Nicholas became Sinterklaas. To this day, the official Sinterklaas of The Netherlands is a rather trim, bishop-ly figure in a white robe, red cloak and bishop’s mitre, with almost-regal long white hair and beard. He travels, incidentally, by white horse.

16th century: St Nicholas is now popular across Europe. The Dutch Sinterklaas has, in many regions, become Santa Claus. Every year, the feast of St Nicholas or Santa Claus is celebrated on December 6, widely believed to be the death anniversary of the original Bishop of Myra (no one seems certain of the year, but the date is not in dispute).

In the 17th century, the image of St Nicholas took a turn and he became Old Father Christmas or Lord Christmas, acquiring the flowing beard, long hair and large build of a much older icon — the Norse god Woden or Odin (above).
In the 17th century, the image of St Nicholas took a turn and he became Old Father Christmas or Lord Christmas, acquiring the flowing beard, long hair and large build of a much older icon — the Norse god Woden or Odin (above).

17th century: Nicholas’s name and image take a turn. He is now called Old Father Christmas, or Lord Christmas, and the legend of the generous bishop in the long beard and robes begins to overlap with that of an older man in similar attire — the Old English chief god Woden, known in Norse legend as Odin. Old Father Christmas acquires his long, flowing beard and hair, and his large build. The Reformation of the 16th century has somewhat erased the Feast of Saint Nicholas; he now begins to represent the spirit of good cheer at Christmas.

1809: St Nicholas makes his way to America via Washington Irving—best known for his short story, Rip Van Winkle. It was in his first book — A History of New York — a satire on history and politics, that he described Santa Claus as a “portly, bearded man who smokes a pipe”. It was Irving who made Santa slide down the chimney too.

Artist Alexander Anderson, in 1810, sketches Saint Nicholas as a trim, saintly figure in long robes and halo. But alongside appear Christmas scenes familiar today — a smiling child next to a pouting one; a fireplace with stockings hung on either side.
Artist Alexander Anderson, in 1810, sketches Saint Nicholas as a trim, saintly figure in long robes and halo. But alongside appear Christmas scenes familiar today — a smiling child next to a pouting one; a fireplace with stockings hung on either side.

1810: John Pintard, an antiquarian and founder of the New York Historical Society, commissions artist Alexander Anderson to sketch the saint. Anderson sketches a trim, somewhat saintly figure in long robes and halo. More importantly, the sketch is accompanied by Christmas scenes familiar today — a smiling child next to a crying and pouting one; a fireplace with stockings hung on either side. An accompanying poem describes Saint Nicholas as a giver of gifts… on request.

1822: Clement Clarke Moore, a writer and professor at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church, writes a Christmas poem for his daughters ‘An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas’ which becomes popular as The Night before Christmas. He immortalises this version of the legend—a St Nicholas with a merry laugh, a twinkle in the eye, and a sleigh drawn by reindeer.

Thomas Nast’s illustrations of Santa Claus start out simple and staid, but eventually include toys, a workshop in the North Pole, a gold stopwatch, and mistletoe...
Thomas Nast’s illustrations of Santa Claus start out simple and staid, but eventually include toys, a workshop in the North Pole, a gold stopwatch, and mistletoe...

1863: The poem inspires political cartoonist Thomas Nast’s illustration, ‘A Christmas Furlough’, which appears in Harper’s Weekly. It shows an almost-familiar Santa, in beard, hat and coat. In later years, Nast would add a North Pole workshop for toys as well as a list of children both naughty and nice. Prints from this time feature shades of tan, and a basic sled (not a sleigh).

1864: Moore’s poem gets a range of illustrations, featuring Santas in yellow suits with yellow sack, others show Santa in blue coats, or green.

Hindustantimes

1868: Sugar Plums, an American confectionary brand, creates an advertisement that shows an elf-like Santa in a red jacket, red-and-green hat and white bloomers, riding a little green sleigh being pulled by vari-coloured reindeer (above).

1881: Nast finally debuts Santa Claus as a round-cheeked, cheerful man with a long white beard, gold stopwatch, bag full of toys, slender pipe — and a red coat. He is also wearing a delicate crown of mistletoe. He is named ‘Merry Old Santa Claus’.

Norman Rockwell creates many Santas — sad, tired, confused. But the jolly ones are the ones that stick. This iconic sketch will likely look familiar because it’s still the basis of most Santa masks.
Norman Rockwell creates many Santas — sad, tired, confused. But the jolly ones are the ones that stick. This iconic sketch will likely look familiar because it’s still the basis of most Santa masks.

1920s: It’s American artist Norman Rockwell who creates the image of Santa still used in almost every Santa mask. Some of his Santas — he created many sketches — look sad, tired, or confused. The jolly ones are the ones that stick.

Rockwell submits sketches of Santa to Coca Cola for use in their Christmas ads, but they stick with their artist, Haddon Sundblom. He creates the iconic Santa figure we know today, dressed in the colours of Coke — red and white. The legend goes that if you look closely you’ll see that he resembles, more than any previous vision of Santa, Haddon Sundblom himself.
Rockwell submits sketches of Santa to Coca Cola for use in their Christmas ads, but they stick with their artist, Haddon Sundblom. He creates the iconic Santa figure we know today, dressed in the colours of Coke — red and white. The legend goes that if you look closely you’ll see that he resembles, more than any previous vision of Santa, Haddon Sundblom himself.
Hindustantimes

1931: Coca-Cola decides to use Santa Claus in its special print ads for Christmas. Their Santa is very like Rockwell’s, except he’s in the Coke colours — red and white. The ads print across The New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic and become so iconic that versions are reprinted every year after. From 1931 to 1964, the Coca-Cola version of Santa is shown delivering toys, enjoying cola, visiting children and even appearing alongside American soldiers in WW2. Interestingly, Rockwell submitted paintings of his Santa Claus to Coke, but they stuck with their artist, Haddon Sundblom, who created a Santa that would look, for all eternity, a lot like him!