Santa Claus may be the most universally recognizable figure in the world. While the modern version of a bearded man who lives at the North Pole only dates back about 150 years, the story of Santa began almost 2,000 years ago. It’s remarkable how a religious figure born in the third century evolved into the “mall Santa” we know and love today. Here’s a brief pictorial history covering the evolution of Santa Claus.
10. Saint Nicholas: The Real-Life Inspiration for Santa
Born around 270 A.D. in present-day Turkey, Saint Nicholas became a Christian bishop at an early age. Born into a wealthy family, St. Nicholas became legendary for traveling the country and giving away his wealth to the less fortunate. He also became known for his love of children. Through the centuries the legend of St. Nicholas continued to grow until he became the most popular saint in Europe. Even today, Catholics revere the historic figure of St. Nicholas, as he’s considered the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants and many others.
9. Father Christmas: Raise a Toast to Baby Jesus
The British gave us Father Christmas, a folklore character who has become synonymous with Santa Claus. First appearing around the middle of the 15th century, the original Father Christmas (seen above in 1686) encouraged people to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus by having a drink. By the 17th century, the image of Father Christmas had morphed into a jolly, bearded old man.
8. Sint Nikolaas: The Dutch Version of St. Nicholas
The Dutch developed their own version of St. Nicholas, Sint Nikolaas. They shortened that to Sinterklaas, which gave rise to the Santa Claus we use today. As for the disturbing image above of Santa being served by a Moorish slave, known as Zwarte Piet … well, history isn’t always pretty. Many Dutch say celebrations featuring Zwarte Piet (also known as “Black Pete”) are racist, and that the figure should be banished.
7. Santa Claus Comes to America
Given that the Dutch founded New York (New Amsterdam), it shouldn’t be surprising that Sinterklaas eventually made his way to the New World. The term “Santa Claus” first appeared in a New York publication in 1773, and the first image of Santa Claus in America appeared in 1810. An artist named Alexander Anderson used Santa as described in a Washington Irving story to create an image of a religious man who delivered presents.
6. Father Christmas Dons Red Robe, Gives Toys to Kids
Around the mid-19th century, Father Christmas evolved from a character associated exclusively with adult feasts to one who gave presents to children. The Victorian greeting cards shown above also reveal another transition, as Father Christmas lost his green robe in favor of a red suit.
5. Cartoonist Thomas Nast Draws Santa in the Civil War
This drawing by legendary cartoonist Thomas Nast shows Santa and his reindeer visiting Union soldiers during the height of the Civil War. The image appeared on the cover of the Jan. 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s creation drew inspiration from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas — better known today as Twas the Night Before Christmas.
4. Nast Refines His Vision of Santa Claus
Thomas Nast’s portrayal of Santa Claus that appeared in the Jan. 1, 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly greatly influenced the modern image of Santa Claus. Nast gave the figure his familiar white-trimmed red suit, his elves, and his home at the North Pole. Nast, regarded by many as the greatest cartoonist in U.S. history, created many other iconic figures in his career, including the modern depiction of Uncle Sam, the Republican Party elephant, and the Democratic Party donkey.
3. Wizard of Oz Author Creates Origin Story For Santa
Frank L. Baum, better known as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus a couple of years later. Consider it the origin story of Santa Claus, much like the Dark Knight film trilogy told the rise of Batman. In Baum’s book, an infant named Claus is abandoned as an infant, and raised by a culture of immortals, who eventually grant him immortality.
2. The Rise of the Department Store Santas
By the late 19th century, children understood the story of Santa Claus, but few had ever seen him. Edgar Department Store in Brockton, Mass., set out to change that in 1890. Owner James Edgar dressed up as Santa for the Christmas season, and children came from all over New England to see him. It didn’t take long for other retailers to see they could draw a crowd with a Santa figure; by the 1920s, such “department store Santas” were everywhere in the retail world.
1. Norman Rockwell Humanizes Santa
In the early and mid-20th century, famed artists Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker produced numerous cover images of Santa Claus for the popular Saturday Evening Post. The images helped take a mythical, larger-than-life character and humanize him for the masses.
One More: Coca-Cola Ads Popularize Santa’s Image
There is a persistent urban legend that the modern image of Santa Claus dates back only to the 1930s and 1940s, introduced to America in a series of Coca-Cola advertisements. (Hey, a soft drink with a red-and-white logo, a man wearing a red-and-white suit — it makes a certain sense.) No question the ads, with illustrations by Haddon Sundblom, helped spread the modern image of Santa. But the familiar jolly, bearded Santa in a red suit had been around for a couple of generations by then.