A Month of Christmas: Ho! Ho! Ho! The Modern Image of Santa Claus

United States - Scott #5336 (2018)
United States – Scott #5336 (2018)

It is now nearing the end of Christmas Day in Thailand where, for the previous twenty-four days, I have posted articles dealing with different aspects of the Yuletide holiday season each featuring an appropriate stamp. Since I just spent the past four days donning a (very hot) Santa Claus suit for party appearances at various local kindergartens, I thought an examination of the most widely portrayed image of the bearded gift-giver would be the best topic for today’s entry. Various parts of the Santa legend have been already been featured during this Month of Christmas on A Stamp A Day.

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, or simply Santa, is a legendary figure originating in Western Christian culture who is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved (“good” or “nice”) children on Christmas Eve (December 24) and the early morning hours of Christmas Day (December 25). The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding the historical Saint Nicholas (a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra), the British figure of Father Christmas and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (himself also based on Saint Nicholas). Some maintain Santa Claus also absorbed elements of the Germanic god Wodan, who was associated with the pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.

Santa “selfie” taken at Plukpanya Municipal School in Phuket, Thailand, during a Christmas Eve activity on December 24, 2018. It was probably 105 degrees Fahrenheit in the unairconditioned room with Santa nearly suffering a heat stroke!

Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, jolly, white-bearded man—sometimes with spectacles—wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, a red hat with white fur and black leather belt and boots and who carries a bag full of gifts for children. This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century is attributed to the significant influence of the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and to the work of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly magazine. It is often incorrectly reported that Haddon Sundblom designed the suit in his advertising work for The Coca-Cola Company. Sundblom’s work did standardize the Western image of Santa, and popularized the image of the red suit with white fur trim. This has become the image of the American Santa, while in some European countries where Saint Nicholas remains popular, the outfit worn is closer to religious clothing, including a Bishop’s mitre.

Santa Claus is said to make lists of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior (“good” and “bad”, or “naughty” and “nice”) and to deliver presents, including toys, and candy to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and coal to all the misbehaved children, on the single night of Christmas Eve, as detailed in yesterday’s blog. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of his elves, who make the toys in his workshop at the North Pole, and his flying reindeer, who pull his sleigh. He is commonly portrayed as living at the North Pole, and often laughing in a way that sounds like “ho ho ho”.

Half-length portrait showing Saint Nicholas of Myra, first half of the 13th century. From Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.
Half-length portrait showing Saint Nicholas of Myra, first half of the 13th century. From Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.

Pre-modern representations of the gift-giver from Church history and folklore, notably Saint Nicholas (known in Dutch as Sinterklaas), merged with the English character Father Christmas to create the character known to Americans and the rest of the English-speaking world as “Santa Claus” (a phonetic derivation of “Sinterklaas”). Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on December 6, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to December 25 to coincide with Christmas Day.

In the English and later British colonies of North America, and later in the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. In 1809, Washington Irving’s History of New York included the Americanization of Sinterklaas into Santa Claus, a name first used in the American press in 1773. In Irving’s book, Santa Claus lost his bishop’s apparel and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. The book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention.

Illustration to verse 1 of the children's poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, 1821.
Illustration to verse 1 of the children’s poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, 1821.

In 1821, the book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published in New York. It contained “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight”, an anonymous poem describing Santeclaus on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. Some modern ideas of Santa Claus became canon after the anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823; Clement Clarke Moore later claimed authorship, though some scholars argue that Henry Livingston, Jr. (who died nine years before Moore’s claim) was the author. St. Nick is described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”, in spite of which the “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer” still indicate that he is physically diminutive. The reindeer were also named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).

Santa’s entrance into homes on Christmas Eve via the chimney was made part of American tradition through Clement Moore’s poem as well. This tradition is shared by many European seasonal gift-givers. In pre-Christian Norse tradition, Odin would often enter through chimneys and fire holes on the solstice. In the Italian Befana tradition, the gift-giving witch is perpetually covered with soot from her trips down the chimneys of children’s homes. In the tale of Saint Nicholas, the saint tossed coins through a window, and, in a later version of the tale, down a chimney when he finds the window locked. In Dutch artist Jan Steen’s painting, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, adults and toddlers are glancing up a chimney with amazement on their faces while other children play with their toys. The hearth was held sacred in primitive belief as a source of beneficence, and popular belief had elves and fairies bringing gifts to the house through this portal.

Ho ho ho is the way that many languages write out how Santa Claus laughs and his exclaiming, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” is part of the modern Santa image being the textual rendition of a particular type of deep-throated laugh or chuckle. The laughter of Santa Claus has long been an important attribute by which the character is identified, but it also does not appear in many non-English-speaking countries.

By 1845, ‘Kris Kringle’ was a common variant of Santa in parts of the United States. A magazine article from 1853, describing American Christmas customs to British readers, refers to children hanging up their stockings on Christmas Eve for ‘a fabulous personage’ whose name varies: in Pennsylvania he is usually called Krishkinkle but in New York he is ‘St. Nicholas’ or ‘Santa Claus’. The author quotes Moore’s poem in its entirety, saying that its descriptions apply to Krishkinkle too.

The Victorian revival of Christmas included Father Christmas as the emblem of ‘good cheer’. His physical appearance was variable, with one famous image being John Leech’s illustration of the “Ghost of Christmas Present” in Charles Dickens’s festive classic A Christmas Carol  — published in 1843 — as a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.

Scrooge's third visitor --
Scrooge’s third visitor — “The Ghost of Christmas Present” — from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. This image is one of four hand-coloured etchings included in the first edition. There were also four black and white engravings.
Photograph of Nast by Napoleon Sarony, taken in Union Square, New York City between circa 1860 and circa 1890.
Photograph of Nast by Napoleon Sarony, taken in Union Square, New York City between circa 1860 and circa 1890.

Thomas Nast was a German-born American caricaturist and editorial cartoonist considered to be the “Father of the American Cartoon”. He was born on September 27, 1840, in military barracks in Landau, Germany (now in Rhineland-Palatinate), as his father was a trombonist in the Bavarian 9th regiment band. Nast had an older sister Andie; two other siblings had died before he was born. His father held political convictions that put him at odds with the Bavarian government, so in 1846, Joseph Nast left Landau, enlisting first on a French man-of-war and subsequently on an American ship. He sent his wife and children to New York City, and at the end of his enlistment in 1850, he joined them there.

Nast attended school in New York City from the age of six to 14. He did poorly at his lessons, but his passion for drawing was apparent from an early age. In 1854, at the age of 14, he was enrolled for about a year of study with Alfred Fredericks and Theodore Kaufmann, and then at the school of the National Academy of Design. In 1856, he started working as a draftsman for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. His drawings appeared for the first time in Harper’s Weekly on March 19, 1859, when he illustrated a report exposing police corruption; Nast was 18 years old at that point.

In his first years with Harper’s, Nast became known especially for compositions that appealed to the sentiment of the viewer. An example is “Christmas Eve” (1862), in which a wreath frames a scene of a soldier’s praying wife and sleeping children at home; a second wreath frames the soldier seated by a campfire, gazing longingly at small pictures of his loved ones. He based his creation of the modern version of Santa Claus on the traditional German figures of Sankt Nikolaus and Weihnachtsmann. Nast’s original drawings were of a small Santa who could slide down chimneys, but his later works made him full size. In an illustration for the January 3, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly. Santa was dressed in an American flag, and had a puppet with the name “Jeff” written on it, reflecting its Civil War context. Nast was also the first to draw Santa wearing a red suit with fur lining, a nightcap, and a black belt with a large buckle. Prior to Nast’s work, Santa’s outfit was tan in color; he changed it to red, although he also drew Santa in a green suit.

January 3, 1863 cover of Harper's Weekly by Thomas Nast,, one of the first depictions of Santa Claus.
January 3, 1863 cover of Harper’s Weekly by Thomas Nast,, one of the first depictions of Santa Claus.
 Portrait of Santa Claus, by Thomas Nast, Published in Harper's Weekly, 1881.
Portrait of Santa Claus, by Thomas Nast, Published in Harper’s Weekly, 1881.

The story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation. His Christmas image in the Harper’s issue dated December 29, 1866 was a collage of engravings titled Santa Claus and His Works, which included the caption “Santa Claussville, N.P.” A color collection of Nast’s pictures, published in 1869, had a poem also titled “Santa Claus and His Works” by George P. Webster, who wrote that Santa Claus’s home was “near the North Pole, in the ice and snow”. The tale had become well known by the 1870s. A boy from Colorado writing to the children’s magazine The Nursery in late 1874 said, “If we did not live so very far from the North Pole, I should ask Santa Claus to bring me a donkey.”

Nast later became the scourge of Democratic Representative “Boss” Tweed and the Tammany Hall Democratic party political machine and also created the political symbol of the elephant for the Republican Party (GOP). Contrary to popular belief, Nast did not create Uncle Sam (the male personification of the United States Federal Government), Columbia (the female personification of American values), or the Democratic donkey, though he did popularize these symbols through his artwork. Nast died on December 7, 1902.

Coca-Cola advertisement featuring Santa Claus, published in the Ladies Home Journal, 1930.
Coca-Cola advertisement featuring Santa Claus, published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, 1930.

The Coca-Cola Company began its December holiday season advertising in the early 1920s with shopping-related ads in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. The first use of the word “Christmas” appeared in 1926 with their first Santa Claus image, complete with red and white suite, was seen the following year. In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department-store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. The ad featured the world’s largest soda fountain, which was located in the department store Famous Barr Co. in St. Louis, Missouri. Mizen’s painting was used in print ads that Christmas season, appearing in The Saturday Evening Post in December 1930.

In 1931. Archie Lee — the D’Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with the Coca-Cola Company — wanted the Christmas campaign to show a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic. Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus, using his own image for the famous Santa. He was born on June 22, 1899, in Muskegon, Michigan, to a Swedish-speaking family. His father, Karl Wilhelm Sundblom, came from the farm Norrgårds in the village of Sonnboda in Föglö, Åland Islands, then part of the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland now Finland. His mother Karin Andersson was from Sweden. Sundblom studied at the American Academy of Art.

Sundblom is best remembered for his advertising work, specifically the Santa Claus advertisements he painted for The Coca-Cola Company starting in 1931. Prior to the Coca-Cola advertising, the image of Santa was in a state of flux. He was portrayed in a variety of forms, including both the modern forms and in some cases as a gnome. It was Sundblom’s work which standardized the form of Santa to the earlier Nast work, including the red suit outfit. The advertisements firmly established the larger-than-life, grandfatherly Claus as a key figure in American Christmas imagery. So popular were Sundblom’s images of Claus that Sundblom is often credited has having created the modern image of Santa Claus. His images are used by Coca-Cola to this day and feature on five of the Christmas stamps released by the United States Postal Service in 2018. A gallery featuring all of Sundblom’s Coca-Cola artwork can be found online.

Haddon Sundblom's first painting used in a Coca-Cola advertisement, first published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1931.
Haddon Sundblom’s first painting used in a Coca-Cola advertisement, first published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1931.
Coca-Cola advertisement using a Haddon Sundblom, first used in National Geographic Magazine, 1963, and used on two United States stamps issued in 2018 (Scott #5334 and 5336).
Coca-Cola advertisement using a Haddon Sundblom painting, first used in National Geographic Magazine, 1963, and used on two United States stamps issued in 2018 (Scott #5334 and 5336).

According to the Coca-Cola Company,

For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Moore’s description of St. Nick led to an image of Santa that was warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human. For the next 33 years, Sundblom painted portraits of Santa that helped to create the modern image of Santa – an interpretation that today lives on in the minds of people of all ages, all over the world.”

In 1942 Sundblom also created Coke’s mascot Sprite Boy, who appeared in print ads during the 1940s and 1950s. Sundblom is recognized as a major influence on many well known pin-up artists, such as Harold W. McCauley, Gil Elvgren, Edward Runci, Joyce Ballantyne, Art Frahm, and Harry Ekman. In the mid-1930s, he began to paint pin-ups and glamour pieces for calendars. Sundblom’s last assignment, in 1972, was a cover painting for Playboy‘s Christmas issue which included a short bio with his photo. He died on March 10, 1976.

Historically, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising, White Rock Beverages had already used a red and white Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923. Earlier still, Santa Claus had appeared dressed in red and white and essentially in his current form on several covers of Puck magazine in the first few years of the 20th century.

Santa Claus as illustrated in Puck (magazine), v. 58, no. 1501 (December 6, 1905), cover.
Santa Claus as illustrated in Puck (magazine), v. 58, no. 1501 (December 6, 1905), cover.

The idea of a wife for Santa Claus may have been the creation of American authors, beginning in the mid-19th century. In 1889, the poet Katharine Lee Bates popularized Mrs. Claus in the poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride”. The 1956 popular song by George Melachrino, “Mrs. Santa Claus”, and the 1963 children’s book How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas by Phyllis McGinley helped standardize and establish the character and role of Mrs. Claus in the popular imagination.

“Is There a Santa Claus?” was the title of an editorial appearing in the September 21, 1897, edition of The New York Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”, has become an indelible part of popular Christmas lore in the United States and Canada.

L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a 1902 children’s book, further popularized Santa Claus. Much of Santa Claus’s mythos was not set in stone at the time, leaving Baum to give his “Neclaus” (Necile’s Little One) a wide variety of immortal support, a home in the Laughing Valley of Hohaho, and ten reindeer — who could not fly, but leapt in enormous, flight-like bounds. Claus’s immortality was earned, much like his title (“Santa”), decided by a vote of those naturally immortal. This work also established Claus’s motives: a happy childhood among immortals. When Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, exposes him to the misery and poverty of children in the outside world, Santa strives to find a way to bring joy into the lives of all children, and eventually invents toys as a principal means. Santa later appears in The Road to Oz as a honored guest at Ozma’s birthday party, stated to be famous and beloved enough for everyone to bow even before he is announced as “The most Mighty and Loyal Friend of Children, His Supreme Highness – Santa Claus”.

The modern portrayal of Santa Claus frequently depicts him listening to children's Christmas wishes. Photo taken on December 13, 2014.
The modern portrayal of Santa Claus frequently depicts him listening to children’s Christmas wishes. Photo taken on December 13, 2014.

The image of Santa Claus as a benevolent character became reinforced with its association with charity and philanthropy, particularly by organizations such as the Salvation Army. Volunteers dressed as Santa Claus typically became part of fundraising drives to aid needy families at Christmas time. In 1937, Charles W. Howard, who played Santa Claus in department stores and parades, established the Charles W. Howard Santa School, the oldest continuously-run such school in the world.

In some images from the early 20th century, Santa was depicted as personally making his toys by hand in a small workshop like a craftsman. Eventually, the idea emerged that he had numerous elves responsible for making the toys, but the toys were still handmade by each individual elf working in the traditional manner.

By the end of the 20th century, the reality of mass mechanized production became more fully accepted by the Western public. Elves had been portrayed as using assembly lines to produce toys early in the 20th century. That shift was reflected in the modern depiction of Santa’s residence — now often humorously portrayed as a fully mechanized production and distribution facility, equipped with the latest manufacturing technology, and overseen by the elves with Santa and Mrs. Claus as executives or managers. An excerpt from a 2004 article, from a supply chain managers’ trade magazine, aptly illustrates this depiction:

Santa’s main distribution center is a sight to behold. At 4,000,000 square feet (370,000 m2), it’s one of the world’s largest facilities. A real-time warehouse management system (WMS) is of course required to run such a complex. The facility makes extensive use of task interleaving, literally combining dozens of DC activities (putaway, replenishing, order picking, sleigh loading, cycle counting) in a dynamic queue … the DC elves have been on engineered standards and incentives for three years, leading to a 12% gain in productivity … The WMS and transportation system are fully integrated, allowing (the elves) to make optimal decisions that balance transportation and order picking and other DC costs. Unbeknownst to many, Santa actually has to use many sleighs and fake Santa drivers to get the job done Christmas Eve, and the transportation management system (TMS) optimally builds thousands of consolidated sacks that maximize cube utilization and minimize total air miles.

United States - Scott #5335b (2018) convertible booklet pane of 20
United States – Scott #5335b (2018) convertible booklet pane of 20
United States - Scott #5336 (2018) first day cover
United States – Scott #5336 (2018) first day cover

The United States Postal Service released its 2018 Christmas stamps in several batches, starting with the circular Poinsettia global Forever (USD $1.15) stamp with the first day of issue at Kansas City, Missouri, on August 26 (Scott #5311) and the annual Madonna and Child release appearing on October 3 in ceremonies at Santa Fe, New Mexico (Scott #5331). The “Sparkling Holidays” set of stamps was announced as a self-adhesive booklet of four stamp designs featuring images created by Haddon Sundblom for The Coca-Cola Company’s holiday advertisements that ran from 1931 through the early 1960s (Scott #5332-5335). A souvenir sheet was announced later featuring an expanded version of the “Santa with book” image included on one of the booklet stamps (Scott #5336). The souvenir sheet will only be sold via the Philatelic Agency in Kansas City and not sold over the counter at Post Offices. The image is from a 1963 advertisement that appeared in National Geographic Magazine. The non-denominated Forever stamps had a value of 50 cents on their October 11, 2018, date of issue, first going on sale in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. They were printed using offset lithography and include serpentine die-cut perforations. The booklet contained a convertible pane of 20 stamps.

Flag of the United States, 1959-date

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