The Image of Santa Claus: A Meeting of Minds and Myth

The evolution of the image of Santa Claus may be a somewhat off topic for an antiquing web-zine dedicated to antiques but collectors of antique images, books, and prints will hopefully find the information illuminating and of substantial value in enjoying their hobby. However, the real reason for writing this article is that I simply love Christmas and get a special kick out of Santa.

There is much debate about the evolution of Santa and for the purpose of this article I going to focus not on the development of Santa himself from St. Nicholas but instead on the development of his image and iconic behaviors.

In 1809, Washington Irving, author of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published the humorous A History of New York, under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker for the New York Historical Society. It included a description of the society’s patron saint, Nicholas, stressing his role as giver of gifts. Irving became a member of the Society the following year and the annual St. Nicholas Day dinner festivities included a woodcut of the traditional Nicholas figure accompanied by a Dutch rhyme about “Sancte Claus”. Irving revised his History of New York in 1812, adding details about Nicholas’ “riding over the tops of the trees, in that selfsame wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.”

The next major step forward in the appearance and antics of the iconic Christmas figure was his appearance in the 1823 poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas or as it is more commonly known The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Moore. The poem introduced the public to many aspects of Santa including such details as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus’s laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas returns up the chimney. Although Moore’s phrase “lays his finger aside of his nose” was taken directly from Irving’s earliest description of Santa.

There is one curious note from Moore’s work is that he describes Santa as an elf and he seems to be far less than human sized. Undoubtedly being that small would be of tremendous advantage in entering houses via the chimney but certainly does not conform to the modern image.

In 1863, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly by the name of Thomas Nast began a series of his own image of Santa. Nast portrayed his Santa figure as having a “flowing set of whiskers” and dressed him “all in fur, from his head to his foot.” Later in 1866 Nast produced a collection of drawings that cemented a number of conceptions about the beloved figure. Nast’s illustrations established Santa as a toymaker and announced his North Pole address.

Nast continued to produce images of Santa throughout his long career and modified the Santa’s image all along the way. For example, Nast changed Santa’s size, ranging from man sized to elfin, and altered his girth as well, sometimes depicting him as slender and at other times as much stouter. In any case by the 1880s the jolly, fat, human sized Santa was firmly established in the public’s imagination.
From then on only his toyshop workers are elf sized.

This brings us to the full-blown controversy; many people like to claim that the modern image of Santa Claus was entirely an invention of the Coca Cola Company’s advertising department. Primary evidence for this is the red and white suit associated with Santa is also the corporate colors of Coca Cola. This story, while grounded in a certain amount of truth, is false in its central assertion.

At the beginning of the 1930s, the still relatively new Coca-Cola Company was still looking for ways to encourage sales of their product during winter, then a slow time of year for the soft drink market. They turned to a fantastically talented commercial illustrator named Haddon Sundblom. He created a series of beautiful paintings and drawings that associated the figure of a red-and-white suited Santa Claus holding, drinking, and generally pleased with Coca-Cola. The success of this advertising campaign has helped fuel the legend that Coca Cola in fact invented the image of the modern Santa Claus, decking him out in a red-and-white suit to promote the company colors. (Incidentally, just about any ear magazine or single illustration containing a Sundblom Santa is a valuable collectors item. Coca Cola memorabilia enjoys a popularity equaling the soft drink’s.)

The truth of the matter is that while some versions of the Santa Claus figure still dressed him various colors of outfits past the beginning of the 20th century, the red suit and flowing white whiskers had become the standard image of Santa Claus by the 1920s, several years before Sundlom drew his first Santa illustration for Coca-Cola.

Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached by email at silas@collectibleantiquesetc.com.

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