Few characters are as recognizable as the patron saint of Christmas.
Santa, as well as his Canadian and British counterpart, Father Christmas, both derive from the legends surrounding Saint Nicholas, a former bishop who lived in the third century in the city of Myra, in a region that’s now part of Turkey. His feast day is celebrated December 6.
The Dutch abbreviated Saint Nicholas’s name as Sinterklaas, which is where the name Santa Clause comes from. The Dutch depict Sinterklaas much like a Catholic bishop with a tall hat, full white beard, and a staff.
Our own depictions of Santa Claus predate date back to images of “Father Christmas” from 17th century in England.
That depiction appears most famously in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, published in 1943, when Dickens describes the Ghost of Christmas Present:
clothed in one simple deep green robe…bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure that its capacious breast was bare…. It’s feet…were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles.
In America, Santa has taken a much different shape. His transformation first began in 1823 with the publication of Clement Clark Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which appeared anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel. (The city of Troy was also the birthplace of another icon, Uncle Sam.)
“His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry! / His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!” reads the poem, which goes on to describe “the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.”
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
The first picture of Santa came in 1863, in a sketch by Thomas Nast for the cover of Harper’s Weekly. (Nast’s artwork, as it happened, helped make the aforementioned Uncle Sam so iconic; his depiction of Santa would have similar lasting impact.)
Nast’s drawing of Santa appeared on Saturday, January 3, 1863. As sketched by Nast, Santa wears what are described as red pants and a blue jacket with large white stars. It is also reputedly the first time Santa appears as fat and jolly rather than as a tall, slender man.
In the picture, he sits on the back of a sleigh packed with presents, visiting a somewhat dejected Union army, passing out gifts to soldiers. A sign in the background says “Welcome Santa Claus.”
After that, Santa made other appearances in other places, including a 1902 book by Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.
But it was Santa’s appearances in advertisements for the Coca-Cola Company that made his appearance iconic. Prior to that, Santa still appeared in clothes of various colors, but the Coke campaign, designed by artist Haddon Sundblom, put Santa in red and white—and he has remained in that outfit to this day.
With any luck, he’ll slide down the chimney at your house tonight!
Adapted from a piece cross-posted at Emerging Civil War.