Although based on St. Nicholas and the Dutch Sinterklass, the jolly gift-giver who is known universally today as Santa Claus is definitely an American creation.
In the United States of the late 18th-century, Christmas in most parts of the newly formed country centered around drinking, eating, and raucous noisemaking. However, this would change during the 1800s when Christmas became a quieter, more child centered and family oriented event.
This change in perspective was due, in part, to a group of scholars, writers and artists who helped create a new American view of Christmas. Among the transformations they made was the expansion of a Christmas figure known since the 1770s in America as Santa Claus, a name derived from the Dutch gift giver Sinterklass.
The Dutch and St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas was an actual 4th-century bishop who was known for his generosity to children and the poor. Many later Christmastime gift givers, such as England’s Father Christmas, France’s Pere Noel, and The Netherlands’ Sinterklass, are based on St. Nicholas.
When Dutch settlers came to America in the 1600s, they brought with them many of their customs. Among these was Sinterklass, a figure who delivered gifts to children on St. Nicholas Eve, December 6th. The story of Sinterklass, whose name was a variation of the name for Nicholas (Sint Niklass), was well known to an American scholarly and literary group who called themselves the Knickerbockers.
Sinterklass, Santa Claus and the Knickerbockers
The Knickerbockers were a group that hoped to create a culture that, although based in part on European traditions, would still be uniquely American. This included Christmas customs. In 1809, Washington Irving in his fictional History of New York Americanized Sinterklass, showing him as a man who traveled through the skies in a horse and wagon, slid down chimneys, and smoked a pipe.
The following year, George Pintard, another Knickerboker, published a pamphlet that showed pictures of St. Nicholas, dressed in bishop robes, stuffing presents into stockings on the fireplace (a European tradition), with treats for good children and sticks for those who had been bad.
In 1821, the book A Children’s Friend, possibly written by Knickerbocker James K. Paulding, told the story of “Santeclaus.” Adding to the legend, the author connected Santa with the northern winter, described him driving a sleigh driven by a solitary reindeer, and gave his annual arrival as Christmas Eve.
Clement Moore and A Visit from St. Nicholas
In 1822, Clement Moore, a classical scholar and yet another Knickerbocker, wrote a Christmas poem for his children, later published a year later as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “The Night Before Christmas.” Not only did Moore’s poem feature the by now familiar stockings, chimney, pipe, and Christmas Eve visits, but it presented a new picture of St. Nick.
As envisioned by Moore, the Christmas visitor was not a tall, slender, and somewhat stern individual dressed in flowing robes and hood as European gift bringers were often portrayed. Instead, he was a short, plump, and very jolly elf-like figure who drove a miniature sleigh driven not by one, but eight, reindeer. Furthermore, he named them: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. (Rudolph would come much later.)
Thomas Nast (1840-1902) and Santa Claus
By 1860, Santa had become a popular American figure, although one who was still varied in looks and habits. Then an artist, Thomas Nast, best remembered for his creation of the Republican elephant, Democrat donkey, Uncle Sam, and political cartoons attacking corrupt politicians, consolidated and rounded out the details over a period of many years. His work would lead to the Santa known today.
Based on Moore’s poem, Nast’s first depiction of Santa appeared in the 1863 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly. Published at the height of the Civil War, his illustration shows Santa visiting and giving gifts to a group of Union soldiers. Over the years he would refine this figure until by 1881 it had changed into a character easily recognizable today.
Nast also produced 76 other Christmas engravings over 24 years. One of these drawings helped to promote the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, a ritual long practiced in Europe. However, most of his illustrations added to what is now the modern day concept of Santa. Among his additions to the story were the following:
- Santa lived at the North Pole (thus, making him a “citizen of the world.”)
- He wore fur suits
- Elves assisted in his toy workshop
- Children wrote Santa letters
- He kept a list of all who were “naughty or nice”
- Bad children were not rewarded with gifts
Nast’s engravings were popular throughout the country, appealing to both rich and poor, literate and illiterate alike. It was these drawings, along with the writings of the Knickerbockers, that helped to create the Santa known today, a figure that is now recognized worldwide today.
- Bowler, Gerry: The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (Toronto: McClelland Stewart, Ltd, 2000); and The History of Christmas