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Don’t Stop Believing
The Evolution of Santa Claus

Don’t Stop Believing
  • The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (by )
  • Santa Claus (by )
  • The Sketch Book (by )
  • A Visit from St. Nicholas (by )
  • Is There a Santa Claus (by )
  • A history of New York (by )
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It’s almost the time of year for tree trimming, festive holiday gatherings, and gift giving. Children in various parts of the globe awake on Christmas morning or Boxing Day eager to uncover goodies from Santa Claus or Father Christmas—the legendary figures who reward well-behaved children. 

The traditional image of Santa that we’re familiar with today was derived from the name “Sinterklaas” or St. Nicholas. “Sinterklaas is a medieval tradition superimposed on deep European mythology,” says Jeanne Fleming, Creator and Coordinator of New York’s Sinterklaas! Festival. She is also the Artistic and Producing Director of Manhattan’s spectacular Village Halloween Parade, which draws approximately 2 million spectators.  

Renowned as the patron saint of children, the authentic St. Nicholas upon whom the legend is based, was born in Myra, Asia Minor and served as a bishop. He is renowned for protecting children. 

Writers Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore both had a hand in fashioning the image of Santa Claus that we recognize today.

In 1812, St. Nicholas was included in a revision Irving made to a dream sequence that appeared in A History of New York. The story mentioned a man who soared over treetops in a flying wagon. 

In The Sketch-Book, Irving wrote about England’s quintessential Christmas customs, which were no longer being celebrated. His descriptions helped reinterpret and revitalize the Christmas narrative in America. Irving wrote, “I have made some general observations on the Christmas festivities of England, and I am tempted to illustrate them by some anecdotes of a Christmas passed in the country.” He added: “The coach was crowded, both inside and out, with passengers, who, by their talk, seemed principally bound to the mansions of relations or friends, to eat the Christmas dinner. It was loaded also with hampers of game and baskets and boxes of delicacies” (p. 153).
After hearing the poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” caricaturist Thomas Nast created an image of a “round jolly old elf.” It was based on this description by Clement C. Moore: 

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur,
From his head to his foot, 
And his clothes were all tarnished
With ashes and soot; 
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler
Just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled!
His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, 
His nose like a cherry! (p. 6)

In 1931, artist Haddon Sundblom painted a handsome Santa much like the one we see today. He was clad in a red suit with white fur trim, a black belt, and black boots. It appeared in holiday advertising for the Coca-Cola Company.

In Is There a Santa Claus? Jacob Riis assures a little boy that there is, indeed a Santa Claus. He writes, “No Santa Claus? Yes, my little man, there is a Santa Claus, thank God! Your father had just forgotten. The world would be poor without one” (p. 25).

By Regina Molaro

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