Santa Claus

Santa Claus began as Saint Nicholas, a Greek bishop who was generous to the poor. After the reformation, the stories of Saint Nicholas fell out of favor, but the image of a giving saint was hard to squelch. Gradually, Saint Nicholas began to reappear in plays and stories but under the name of Old Man Christmas or Father Christmas.

Throughout Europe, the image of Saint Nicholas varied. Some images were of a golden-haired angel version of Jesus. The cartoonist Thomas Nast is credited with envisioning Saint Nicholas as a cheerful man with a big belly carrying a sack of gifts. The Nast image became the basis for our current image of Santa Claus.

In 1821, an anonymous poem called Old Santeclaus with Much Delight described a man on a reindeer sleigh with gifts for children. The poem and the Nast cartoons created the beginnings of the current imagine of Santa Claus (see image below).

Nast, however, was inconsistent in his cartoons. The color of Santa Claus’ outfit changed from cartoon to cartoon. Red became the most popular color due in part to the red worn by bishops. One other aspect of Nast’s cartoons has also evolved. Nast often portrayed Santa Claus as being strict looking.

In the 1920, the Coca-Cola Company featured Santa Claus in its holiday advertising. A bottle of Coke replaced Santa’s pipe (see image below). The illustrator, Haddon Sundblom, is given credit for creating the image of Santa Claus as we now know him. Over the years, Santa Claus was pictured in a number of light-hearted images.

Sundblom created the advertisements as original oil paintings which are now in art museums around the world. Many of the children featured in the images were Sundblom’s neighbors. The dog is his family pet.

Commercial enterprises often have a profound effect on the images we have of aspects of society. Would Santa Claus be as beloved a figure for children without the Coca-Cola advertisements? It’s hard to say.

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“There are three stages of man: he believes in Santa Claus; he does not believe in Santa Claus; he is Santa Claus.”– Bob Phillips (counselor)




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