The History Behind Santa's Look

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Whenever you hear the name Santa Claus, a certain iconic image tends to come to mind. The red suit and hat with a white beard and bag of toys in tow instantly enters our imagination, but have you ever wondered why that is? What history is there behind the image of Santa we’ve all come to know and love? The truth of the matter is that our beloved Santa Claus's story dates all the way back to the 3rd century!

Good Ol’ St. Nick

Santa Claus traces his earliest roots all the way back to the monk St. Nicholas in modern-day Turkey. This monk was the subject of numerous legends and tales, and as a result, December 6th was chosen as the date of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Stories from the real St. Nick’s life told of him giving gifts to children and toasting celebrations, and this reputation carried into the legends of his name. As for the white beard? That trait was common among European gods who gave their beards credit for magical powers.

Painting of Turkish monk St. Nicholas

Image Source: Catholic Online

American Icon

As far as the transition into American culture, writers and poets strived to make Christmas more of a family tradition, so they revived the old stories of St. Nicholas. The first traces of this jolly Saint Nick are found in an 1809 book titled Knickerbocker's History of New York by Washington Irving. The book depicts a pipe-smoking St. Nick flying over rooftops in a magical wagon delivering presents to good kids and switches to misbehaving ones. Up to this point, however, Santa’s look was not concrete. He was depicted in different colored clothing, different ages, and different sizes from miniature to larger than life.

Dust cover for Knickerbocker's History of New York by Washington Irving

Image Source: NYPL

The image of Santa that we now know and love with the grandfather beard, plenty of jolly and decked out in red, was created by artist Thomas Nast. Nast created these cartoons of the elf-like Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly magazine during the 1860s. Nast's cartoons of Santa supported the Union which led President Lincoln to credit the drawings as a contribution to the Union's success during the Civil War by demoralizing Confederate soldiers. Soon after, the name of St. Nicholas shifted to Santa Claus since it was a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus.

Illustrations of Santa Claus in Harper's Weekly by Thomas Nast

Image Source: MOAS

Modern Day Santa

As the image of Santa continued to evolve, artists like Norman Rockwell helped to paint the picture of the Santa we recognize today. Alongside Rockwell, Coca Cola began advertising the jolly Santa Claus with an ice-cold glass bottle of coke. Santa’s red suit is often attributed to the signature red of the Coca Cola brand. Another influential part of Santa's signature look was the family favorite poem "’Twas the Night Before Christmas." Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem for his daughters with the original title “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” It is from this poem that we get the classic Santa characteristics like his round belly and ability to climb chimneys and soar with an eight-reindeer miniature flying sleigh.

Norman Rockwell's painting submission of Santa Claus for Coca-Cola from the year 1935

Image Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Even though he’s gone through many different iterations, the Santa Claus icon most known today has become a recognized staple around the world. With real historical figures as his roots and plenty of cultural influences, Santa Claus has more history attached to him than you may have thought! The next time you see a Santa figure this upcoming Christmas season, take a moment to remember all the rich history behind good ol’ Saint Nick!

See Santa in his finest!:

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