A Very Brief History of Santa Claus
Is it Christmas without a countdown or Santa? To some the answer is no and to me it isn’t Christmas if I can’t tie in some historical facts or geographic trivia!
A few years ago, I came across these cards and as I love Santa, world traditions and history they seemed a perfect fit. I didn’t know much about the cards, so I did some digging and found they were produced in 1994 as collector cards and from what I’ve found there were other similar series created over the years, but the content remains similar. The set I have is not complete and while I’ve found complete sets online the shipping to get them to Australia is higher than the cost of the cards and most sellers won’t even ship here so as of, yet I haven’t purchased any more (that may change though).
The cards show depictions of Santa over the years in different countries. The most common are of course the USA and England but other nations are represented. There are a lot of generic “Europe” and a generic Scandinavia and Asia cards, but some specific nations are shown such as Holland, Belgium and Mexico.
We all know that the legend of Santa dates back to the story of St. Nicholas from the fourth century (at least that is what we assume in most of our media and pop culture representations but Father Christmas, who looks a lot more like our modern Santa, dates from England in the 16th century when he came to be the embodiment of the festive season. Over the last month I’ve been sharing some of these cards and the deep dive I went on to uncover the real story Santa!
This by no means a concise history, just a quick overview, but I'm pretty sure Santa has got me a great book on this topic and I do have a few others I'd like to read further so come next Christmas there will hopefully be much more on the topic to share!
#1 - The Netherlands
De Kerstman in Dutch translates as “The Christmas Man” aka Santa Clause. He is very similar to St. Nicholas in the Netherlands – or Sinterklaas as he is known.
In Holland many people still celebrate St. Nicholas Day as the premiere gift giving holiday. Less people celebrate on Christmas Day however in modern times the number of people who give gifts on both days is on the rise.
Following the Reformation devotion to St. Nicholas waned except for in the Netherlands and it is the Dutch who are credited with transporting the tale of St. Nicholas to the USA when they settled New Amsterdam (now New York). The development of Santa in the “new world” is well recognised.
#2 - Belgium
In Belgium St. Nicholas or Sinterklass remains an important figure and is often more present in modern day than Santa himself.
Presents are given to children on St. Nicholas Day while on Christmas Day the event is celebrated with presents for all members of the family.
#3 - France
Pere Noel aka Father Christmas or Papa Noel, Daddy Christmas is who brings the presents in France. Today he is better known as Santa Claus.
Possessing many of the traits of St. Nicholas (but being a different figure altogether) on Christmas Eve children leave their shoes out filled with treats for his donkey. If the children have been good, he will take their offerings and replace them with presents that would fit into their shoes (i.e., sweets, money or small toys).
Due to the spread of French culture through French territorial expansion and colonialism this tradition has spread to many parts of the world such as Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil where Papa Noel is the main Christmas figure.
#4 - Asia
The first of a few “interesting” cards in this set is the 1882 Asia Santa.
As I’ve mentioned before European colonialism saw many traditions spread throughout the world – this included Christmas celebrations and the different versions of “Santa”.
Having said that Santa is mainly a commercial character with Christmas not celebrated as a religious holiday in many Asian countries but more of a reason to exchange gifts across Asia.
In South Korea the 25th December is a public holiday while in Japan it is not a public holiday but still celebrated with presents for children on Christmas Eve.
In China Santa is called “Shen Dan Lao Ren” (Christmas Old Man) and he can be found in shopping centre grottos in the bigger cities.
Some countries in Asia such as the Philippines do celebrate Christmas in a similar manner to the rest of the Western world with most of the population being Christian.
#5 - Switzerland
Just as ‘the country is divided into regions with different official languages the story of Santa and St. Nicholas also differs between the regions.
In the French speaking parts of Switzerland St. Nicholas is accompanied by Pere Fouettard who delivers lumps of coal or even a beating to naughty children. This story is also well-known in France and Southern Belgium. A similar figure known as Schmutzli is present in the tales of St. Nicholas in the German speaking area of Switzerland.
#6 - Germany
In Germany the early influence of Santa was Wodan. Yes you probably recognise the name, Odin – the God of the Wild Hunt who was a Yule figure (the celebration that pre-dated Christmas in many regions as the midwinter event).
Wodan had a similar appearance to St. Nicholas and wore a blue-hooded cloak. Over the years it is said that his story transitioned into St. Nicholas and then Santa.
The tradition of Santa coming down the chimney actually is linked to Wodan as that’s how he’d enter homes on the solstice.
Other traditions had Santa figures come down chimneys but it is interesting that Wodan did this.
#7 - Nineteenth Century America
The term “Santa Claus” was first used in the USA in the 1770s and in the 1820s Santa had come to be described much in the way we see him today riding a sleigh and delivering presents. The publication of what we now know as “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823 further helped to create the tale of Santa as a jolly, round man. By the time these depictions were published in the 1880s and 1890s Santa looked different to that of the English Santa who had maintained his St. Nicholas and Woden influences.
#8 - England
A look at the depiction of Santa in 1880s England v. 1880s USA is very different.
In England Santa is traditionally known as Father Christmas and has his origins in the Yuletide festivities like in Germany.
During the years when the Puritans were in power in the UK, 1649-1660 Christmas was banned. As such when the monarchy as restored Father Christmas came to represent the ‘good old days’ and he rose in popularity.
It is important to note that he was not like the Santa we know today. He didn’t deliver gifts to children and many of the associated customs were not associated with him. These only began to develop in the Victorian era as Christmas became a more family-focused event and the American influence of Santa began to come back across the ocean.
#9 - Twentieth Century USA
Throughout the early part of the 20th century in the USA Santa developed into the Santa we know and love today.
The most popular depiction of Santa was the Coca-Cola Company’s advertising of the 1930s which popularized the modern interpretation of Santa.
What about Mrs. Santa Claus? (Stay Tuned below)!
#10 - Mexico
This is one of the more interesting cards in the set. It features a depiction of Santa in Mexico in 1927 and if you look closely to me it looks like the child is scared of Santa.
In Mexico Christmas is still celebrated in a very traditional way. The most common Christmas symbol is a poinsettia, rather than Santa. Christmas practices have derived from the Spanish celebrations and been combined with indigenous traditions. It remains a rather religious celebration compared to many other countries where commercialism has played down the religious aspect.
Santa has only really entered popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century so when this image was created Santa wouldn’t have been that well known.
#11 - Scandinavia
This 1920 Scandinavia card depicts Santa as a character similar to St. Nicholas, which is what we would expect with many people associating St. Nicholas with Scandinavia but this isn’t the case.
What is Scandinavia? Traditionally this is the area that covers Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and sometimes also Iceland.
This region has some interesting Christmas traditions, many that do go back to the Yuletide traditions.
The Nisse are a common part of Scandinavian folklore and they resemble gnomes and have large point hats (yes like Santa’s). They appear to perform tasks similar to Santa’s elves and according to tradition it is them who delivers presents. With twentieth century commercialism and American influences the Nisse and Santa have merged into one but in many stories Santa does have his elves.
The Scandinavian Christmas traditions are fascinating, and I’d love to spend more time understanding and exploring them.
#12 - Mid-Twentieth Century USA
By now you should know all there is to know about Santa in modern popular culture as he can literally be found almost everywhere! As you can see from these final USA cards, Santa had his current look well and truly established by the mid-late 1930s.
It was in 1931 that the Coca-Cola company commissioned Haddon Sundblom to depict Santa in an advertisement for the company. Unlike previous versions which often had Santa looking slightly terrifying, Haddon's version created a Grandfather-like appearance. Haddon also put Santa in red clothing which is how we all know Santa today.
Interestingly, this was not the first time Santa was used to advertise the product. In fact Santa was a common feature of Coca-Cola adds since the 1920s but like many other depictions even the Coca-Cola Santa's of the 1920s were not necessarily warm and friendly.
Want to know more about what comes next and how Santa has developed since the 1930s-1940s? Sorry to leave you hanging but that's a topic for next Christmas!
BONUS: Mrs. Claus
What about Mrs. Claus? Have you noticed that she isn’t shown in a single one of the cards I’ve been sharing over the past month?!
It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that she began to become a staple of the Santa story.
While the story of Santa dates back to the fourth century, Mrs. Claus doesn’t make an appearance in the Santa tale until the mid-nineteenth century when she begins to appear in a number of stories created in the USA. This coincides in the rise of the popularity of the Santa story so it stands to reason that the creation of Mrs. Clause occurred at this time.
It wasn’t until almost a century later though that Mrs. Claus was popularized thanks to a song. This song was the 1956 song “Mrs Santa Claus” by George Melachrino but from what I can find Mrs. Clause wasn’t depicted on the album cover so this really didn’t help to shape the physical image of the woman who basically came to look like the exact female version of Santa.
There is a quaint 1996 Christmas movie called “Mrs Santa Claus” in which Mrs. Clause is played by Angela Lansbury and it is set during the early twentieth century in New York. If you haven’t seen this film then I do recommend it. If you like Christmas movies, musicals and a bit of a cheesiness then this has it all! It really is a bit of fun and growing up it was the only film that saw Mrs. Clause take the lead role.
In recent years Mrs. Claus has come to had a greater role in Christmas festivities which directly reflects the changing attitudes to traditional male-dominated tales. I am very keen to see what Mrs. Claus will get up to in the future as for all kinds of authors, film makers and anyone in the creative arts industry there are so many ways the story can be interpreted!