It’s Christmas time and the papers are full of heartwarming Christmas stories. At some point, somewhere, you will probably see a story about somebody’s Santa Claus collection. The collector will usually be pictured in a room full of Santas. The owner will wear an expression that seems to say ‘this is my family, though I’m not quite sure how they all got here’ and will usually admit that it was a hobby that got out of hand.
The image of Santa Claus is used to hawk virtually everything these days so it’s easy, way too easy, to accumulate a lot of Santa Claus things once you set your mind to it. However the more serious or historical collector can also find a lot of fascinating material relating to Santa Claus, and he’s well worth collecting just for that reason.
We often think of Santa Claus as the secular side of Christmas, he’s all about presents and detracts from the spiritual aspect of Christmas. However Santa Claus, in his original form, is deeply rooted in Christianity.
To quote a line from the famous editorial in the New York Sun in 1897; Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Or rather, there was a Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myrna, in what is now Turkey (at the time it was a Greek province) in the fourth century.
He was born into a wealthy Greek family but gave away all his money and devoted his life to helping the poor. This was very unusual for the time. Organized charity, even in the church, was pretty well unknown but Nicholas felt strongly that it was his Christian duty and he pushed the church to accept his vision, which it has. There are many stories of his various miracles but according to Adam English, who did extensive research for his new book The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, most of them were made up long after his death. However one story, of how he saved a family with three children from destitution by anonymously tossing gold coins through their widow one night, is plausible and is the origin of our Christmas gift-giving tradition.
St. Nicholas died on December 6, 346. At the time there was no formal process for canonization; he became a saint by popular assent. A saint’s feast day is on the anniversary of his death, or his ascension into heaven. To honour him, nuns and other followers started giving anonymous gifts to children and the poor on the eve of his feast.
This is also about the time the Catholic Church started to celebrate Christ’s Mass, or Christmas, to mark the birth of Jesus. Nobody really knows exactly when Jesus was born but they settled on December 25 for reasons we can only speculate on now.
The earliest images we have of St. Nicholas are frescoes on the wall of his church in Myrna. Although they were made long after his death, they do depict a bearded man in canonical robes. In 1094 the Catholic Church split into two factions; Eastern Orthodox and Western, or Roman Catholic. Both sides claimed St. Nicholas as their own so you will see images and statues of him on both Eastern and Western garb although in real life he probably wore neither.
Besides children, St. Nicholas was also very popular with sailors and it was they who spread his stories and built churches devoted to him in major ports throughout the world. Of course he changed to suit the environment. In Britain he became Father Christmas, who spread good cheer. In Holland he became Sinterklaas and from there his gift-giving tradition spread throughout Europe.
Also in the mix of gift-bearers is a plethora of pre-Christian Norse, Scandinavian and German figures, some of whom rode animals, most had beards and often came down the chimney.
Over the centuries the different year-end celebrations; St. Nicholas’ Feast, Christ’s Mass, the German Yule, Roman Saturnalia and winter solstice evolved and eventually merged to become the multi-faceted Christmas, or Holiday Season, that we know today. However the merging of the many different gift-bearers into Santa Claus was more by design than evolution.
We like to think that Santa Claus is Canadian because he lives at the North Pole but he is actually an American creation. It is widely believed that he was invented by Coca-Cola and given red and white clothing to promote their brand colours but that is a myth. It was just after the Revolutionary War that various writers in New York City, most notably Washington Irving, began creating Santa Claus as a replacement for the British Father Christmas. Santa Claus takes his name and much of his inspiration from the Dutch Sinterklaas probably because New York was once a Dutch settlement.
The first detailed description of Santa Claus was in the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (aka The Night Before Christmas). It was published anonymously in 1823 but later attributed to a prominent New York professor of Biblical Learning, Clement Clarke Moore. Moore’s poem became the basis for Santa Claus illustrations by Thomas Nast, Norman Rockwell and many others in various American magazines. Those original magazine illustrations are very collectable today; ironically Santa was often depicted as stern and sometimes he was even draped in stars and stripes, showing his support for the Union.
The first illustrations of Santa Claus in his classic red and white suit started to appear as early as 1896 on several covers of an irreverent, satirical magazine called Puck. Those original magazine covers are hard to find today but the illustrations are now Public Domain so you can begin your collection by downloading free, high resolution copies from several sources on the Internet.
Although Coca-Cola didn’t invent Santa Claus, the company was probably the best ever at exploiting him. In 1931 they hired artist Haddon Sundblom to create their Santa Claus ads. Sundblom based his images on Moore’s poem and depicted Santa as a bit mischievous; he played with the toys, raided pantries and drank a lot of Coke. Sundblom’s original paintings are housed in the Coca-Cola archives; some are on display at The Louvre and the Royal Ontario Museum. They are out of our reach but we can collect copies of the ads which ran up until 1964 in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, the Ladies Home Journal, the National Geographic and others.
Santa Claus continues to evolve. A hundred years ago, fat people were considered jolly and generous, today excessive weight is a health issue so skinny Santas are back in vogue. Many modern illustrators are bringing Santa back to his roots, showing a more complex and detailed figure.
Santa Claus came along at a critical time in our history. Since A Visit From St. Nicholas first appeared democracy, capitalism and science have transformed western society to an extent that Clement Clarke Moore could not have imagined. We are now a consumer society. While many decry this, we also have more freedom, better health and much more wealth than any society ever and our commercial Christmas, with Santa Claus as our mascot, is a celebration of that success. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as we don’t forget this is also a time of giving; helping others who are not so fortunate.
Santa Claus, in his many incarnations, helps us to remember that too, so long live Santa Claus and Merry Christmas everyone.