Christmas Past

The fascinating stories behind your favorite Christmas traditions

Backstory — Santa Claus, Part 3: Here Comes Santa Claus

image of Thomas Nast Santa Claus

We’re finishing off the series about Santa with a look at what happened to the legend when it reached America. The Santa we know today is largely an American invention, based on the Dutch legend of Sinter Klaas.

The modern Santa Claus was shaped by media and advertising

In America, Washington Irving wrote about Santa, and brought him one step closer to today’s familiar figure. But it was Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” that made a large impact on the image of Santa and his role in the Christmas celebration. Moore’s poem was first published without illustrations. The earliest versions that did include illustrations showed him as an elfin figure.

Illustrator Thomas Nast picked up the ball and put some more touches on Santa through annual illustrations for Harper’s Weekly.

Nast also helped further the Santa image by illustrating a book by George Webster titled Santa Claus and His Works, one of the first children’s books to be published in full color.

image of book cover: Santa Claus and his Works
Santa Claus and his Works

The Santa we know today is largely the result of paintings by Haddon Sundblom on behalf of Coca Cola, starting in the 1930s. This is the Santa we’re most familiar with: a full sized adult in a plush red suit and matching hat.

In this episode, Christine in California shares a Christmas memory about a toy she received as a child in the 1980s. The Petster was a voice-controlled robot cat:

Music in this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:00
This episode of Christmas Past is the third in a three part series about Santa Claus. And even though children love Santa, these episodes are not meant for them. grownups, please enjoy them on your own. Thanks.

In Acts one and two of our story, we met the historical St. Nicholas and then watched as his legend grew and changed as it spread across Europe. By the 17th century, St. Nicholas celebrations had begun to move from early December two Christmas time in some cultures, and he went from being a protective saintly bishop to more of a secular figure who cared if children were naughty or nice. Santa Claus really couldn’t have happened without America. And this final phase of his transformation is uniquely American, because it involves multiculturalism, innovation, media, and advertising. And now for our third and final act. Here comes Santa Claus. I’m Brian Earl. This is Christmas Past

when I said that Santa Claus couldn’t have happened without America, I really meant New York in particular,

Bruce David Forbes 1:27
the people who bring it over to us are the Dutch who come to New Amsterdam, which later is going to be called New York.

Brian Earl 1:35
That’s Bruce David Forbes, again, a professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and the author of the book Christmas, a candid history.

Bruce David Forbes 1:44
I mean, the reason it doesn’t come to us from other places is that the Puritans are people who are quite anti Catholic. They don’t really want anything to do with saints. And even the Church of England is kind of hesitant about that, so that all the other people who are coming across aren’t carrying a St. Nicholas tradition, but the Dutch it’s almost like a glimmer of St. Nicholas came over to the colonies.

Brian Earl 2:11
Now, even though some places in Europe had started to move St. Nicholas celebrations down the calendar toward Christmas, it wasn’t widely adopted. It wasn’t until it came to America, and probably over the course of several generations, that it really became more or less official, and children will be happy to learn that black Peter and others like him stayed back in Europe, for the most part anyway. The only companion Santa will have in America are reindeer, Mrs. Claus and his elves, but we’ll get to all of that. The point here is that the Dutch Sinterklaas will have the strongest influence on the legend that will go on to become Santa Claus. That legend wouldn’t undergo any major changes until a young writer named Washington Irving would leave his mark. This is the same Washington Irving who wrote Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Only in this case, he was writing under the pen name of Diedrich Knickerbocker. In 1809, he published a satire called A History of New York. And in that book are references to St. Nicholas that bring him one step closer to the Santa Claus we know today. He wrote a flying wagon, not quite a sleigh, and it was pulled by horses, not reindeer, but it’s a start. He slid down chimneys to deliver gifts. He delivered them into stockings. He smoked a pipe, but one important difference was that he came around on New Year’s Eve and not Christmas Eve. But then in 1823, a newspaper in New York published a poem on Christmas Eve, about Christmas Eve

Recording 3:39
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Brian Earl 3:44
this is a poem that went on to become one of the best known in the English language, but also really innovative in terms of St. Nicholas, its author Clement Clarke more picked up the ball from Washington Irving, but made some radically different changes. He writes that St. Nicholas rides in a sleigh, it’s pulled by eight reindeer. But maybe the biggest change of all was something you may not have even noticed, hiding in plain sight

Bruce David Forbes 4:10
miniature slay a tiny reindeer. In the poem, he is an elf. Which, by the way, would help us understand how he could come down a chimney and for about 20 years or so I can’t remember exactly. The poem was republished, but never with an illustration the first time it was published with an illustration. If you look at that, it looks like a scruffy leprechaun.

Brian Earl 4:33
And all of this was without precedent. No one had ever described St. Nicholas like this before. It said that this poem is largely responsible for many of the conceptions of Santa Claus that we have today. It had a hugely influential place in the history of Christmas gift giving, but maybe more than anything else. Because of how popular and widely known it was. The poem helped to standardize an image of St. Nicholas as a kindly magical gift giver and really cement the idea of St. Nicholas coming on Christmas Eve. Here we see mass media rather than tradition and folklore affecting a general perception.

It wasn’t long after all of that, but the name Santa Claus had fully caught on and became the preferred name. And a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast was producing drawings that would take the image of Santa Claus one step further. Nast worked for Harper’s Weekly in the 1860s. In his annual Christmas drawings for Harper’s holiday issue introduced a lot of new ideas about Santa.

Bruce David Forbes 5:45
Yeah, it’s more to the story of Santa’s not really through words, but through illustrations. He has the North Pole, he has elves working, he adds children waiting up late at night to see if someone’s going to come back down the chimney. Children leaving treats for Santa children sending letters to Santa so I think Thomas NASA is really, really crucial, although it’s still not a final image, but we’re starting to get close to our modern image.

Brian Earl 6:15
And even though he wasn’t the first to do it, he often showed Santa smoking a pipe.

Bruce David Forbes 6:19
Really what that is, is a remnant of the Dutch heritage. If you look at that Thomas Nast image that’s not an ordinary fight. That’s a Dutch pipe

Brian Earl 6:28
Nast’s Santas varied from one illustration to the next. Sometimes he was short and look like a little l for gnome. Sometimes he was taller. Sometimes his suit looked like the one we know today. Sometimes it looked more like long johns. And then in the late 1860s, Thomas Nast was approached by a publisher that was the first to produce children’s books in color. Nasty illustrations for Harper’s had all been in black and white. But the publisher wanted to take advantage of this new printing technology. And so Nast began drawing Santa is having a red suit with white trim. The book is called Santa Claus and his works by George Webster. It’s kind of a forgotten classic and it’s in the public domain now, so I’ll post a link to it on my website Christmas pass podcast.com. Nast continued creating Santa’s illustrations into the 1890s. And in the decades that followed, other artists like Norman Rockwell would also produce Santas. They usually stayed pretty close to the Santa Claus envisioned by Washington, Irving and clemen Clark Moore and Thomas Nast, maybe with a couple of variations here and there. But all of that was about to change. Haddon Sundblom was a commercial artist who had already done a great deal of work for Coca Cola, and starting in 1931. And continuing for about 30 years. sunblind would produce one or two annual Santa paintings for Coca Cola. This is the Santa we know today. He’s pictured as a full size man, human with nothing elfin or gnome-like about him. grandfatherly in a plush looking suit with a black belt at the waist. It’s fair to say that Sundblom put the finishing touches on Santa Claus in his paintings had a massive and almost captive audience through the sheer force of Coca Cola, his marketing machine. We’re talking about billboard ads, magazine ads in store displays, posters, figurines, and other collectibles. And of course, the suit would match the red and white of the Coca Cola brand. This kind of ubiquity was unprecedented.

Bruce David Forbes 8:26
So just think about the impact of one single artist and their image of Santa showing over and over again for more than 30 years. Whatever the company is that sponsors it, that ever present image, it really kind of polishes off Santa, and cements that image in our memories.

Brian Earl 8:47
It’s amazing to think that the Santa we know and love today is only 85 years old. And given how much he’s changed in 1700 years, it’s perfectly possible that he’ll continue to evolve. Santa is now recognized all over the world, not just in Europe and America.

Bruce David Forbes 9:03
I have I have a friend who just he and his wife just recently traveled through Southeast Asia. And they sent me a series of six or seven pictures with Christmas trees with a Santa Claus figure and so on. These are these are places like Singapore,

Brian Earl 9:20
and that means more cultures that can add their own influence and shape the legend into something meaningful to them. You know, I often go back and forth on how I feel about Santa Claus as a gift giver. On the one hand, it’s a big part of the reason that Christmas has become mainly about gifts. But on the other hand, it’s also part of what makes the holiday special. Of course, I’m not as into receiving gifts now as I once was as a child. But nowadays when I give a gift to a child, it’s really special for both of us. And some of the Christmas gifts I received as a child are among my favorite holiday memories. For me in particular, it was the set of magic tricks. came out of the old Service Merchandise catalog. And I know that a lot of other adults have similar memories about cherished Christmas gifts, like this one from Christina in California

Christine 10:09
I think I was probably about five or six years old, and my oma, which is the German word for grandma. On my dad’s side, she got me this robot cat, it was called texture. It was sort of like calm when when you called it, but it really just reacted to handclaps. And if you pet it in with her, oh, and another thing I remember is its eyes lit up before it moved to kind of tell you that it had heard your command. Looking back on it, it was so 80s. And I think the idea that this animal moved like a real animal did, but that’s totally in the control of my five year old self. That same kind of magical.

Brian Earl 10:44
If you’d like to share a memory, it’s super easy. All you have to do is record a voice memo on your phone and send it to me at Christmas Past podcast@gmail.com. Try to keep it to about a minute and be sure to say your name and where you’re from. And if you’re shy about recording your own voice, that’s okay. You can just email me something at Christmas Past podcast@gmail.com. And maybe I’ll get a chance to read it on the show.

Christmas passed is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Thank you one last time to Dr. Bruce, David Forbes. And thanks also to Christine in California. And I’ll let you in on a little secret. Christine is my wife. Don’t forget to come by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. That’s how we can keep the conversation going between episodes. I’m sharing all kinds of fun vintage Christmas stuff and Christmas trivia almost every day, search for Christmas Past podcast in all three places, and you’ll find me you can give me a like or follow or just say hi and join the conversation. And if you have any questions or feedback about the show, including suggestions for future topics, I’m all ears. Get in touch with me through social media or email and I would love to hear what you have to say. And also take a moment to subscribe if you haven’t already. There’s a lot more fun to come this season and I don’t want you to miss a single episode. You can subscribe on iTunes or however you get your podcasts and I’ll have more information about subscribing at Christmas pass podcast.com and also on Christmas pass podcast.com you’ll find Show Notes for this episode and all the previous episodes. For this one. I’ll have information about some of the materials we discussed here. Like that children’s book, along with info about the music you hear on the show and a lot more. Again, that’s Christmas Past podcast.com thank you very much for listening and I hope to see you in the next episode.

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