Santa Claus is certainly the most recognizable symbol of the Christmas holiday and certainly one of American’s most beloved folk hero’s. Santa is the gift giver supreme who rewards good children with gifts and candy and puts lumps of coal in the stockings of misbehaving kids. As a marketing tool, Santa has no equal among advertisers. He sells everything from cars, to electric shavers, to liquor, and even underwear. He is the king of gift givers. Santa is also a movie and TV star. Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Claus, Santa Claus, the Movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, The Polar Express, Bad Santa, The Christmas, that almost wasn’t are but a few films in which Santa is a central character.
Our American vision of Santa has come from the Christmas traditions of our pioneer forefathers, in particular the Dutch and German settlers who came to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sinterklaas is the Dutch gift giver — an elf-like being who wears a red ball stocking cap, green jacket, and red or red and white striped pants and snow boots. He smokes a pipe, and often wears snow shoes. He has a beard which can be red or white. There is no sleigh or reindeer and he comes through the door, not the chimney. He walks or rides a noble white horse.
The first mention of Santa Claus is found in an 1783 short story published in the Knickerbocker Press. It’s obviously an Americanization of Sinterklaas. Washington Irving wrote a tale of Santa riding over the treetops in a sleigh in an 1812 Christmas story. It was in 1821 that William Guilly, a New York printer, first mentioned the flying reindeer in a holiday children’s book called A New Years Gift for You. Guilly said it was based on an old Indian legend that his mother told him. Clement Moore, in 1823, published the poem “A Visit from St. Nicolas” which gave names to the reindeer. Moore didn’t acknowledge authorship of the story until 1837. By that time it had become a popular Christmas tradition.
How Santa looks can be traced back to newspaper cartoonist Thomas Nast in the second half of the 19th century. Nast took several descriptions of Santa that were popular in the newspaper cartoons and created the basis for how Santa should look: A white bearded bespectacled man with a pipe, wearing the red cap with white ball, a red snowsuit with white fur trim, and with black wide belt and black boots. In 1931, the Coca-Cola Company took the image and refined it a bit and made Santa a pitchman for Coca-Cola products. It is this image that most people see today when they think of Santa Claus. Television has cemented this image into the collective imagination of most Americans.
So no matter if you call him St. Nicolas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, or Santa Claus, may you be on his good little boys and girls list and a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Joyous Holiday Season to all of you!
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