(Note: The following article was originally published in the Johnston County Capital-Democrat, Dec. 24, 1992. We re-published it in this week's issue as a Christmas gift to our readers, and I felt it was appropriate to share it here as well.)
He is one of the most recognized figures in the world. Many consider him to be the quintessential symbol of the holiday season; despite debates over whether his secular appeal cheapens or denigrates the holiday’s spiritual origins, few can dispute the joy that he brings to children at this time of year.
He is known by many names: St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Sinterklas. But it is the Anglicized version of that last name by which he is best known: Santa Claus.
Most of us think we know him when we see him, but we would scarcely recognize a portrait drawn of him in 1858. Despite his high level of visibility, Santa’s looks have altered dramatically over the years; to put it bluntly, Mr. Claus just isn’t the man he used to be.
Early portraits depict the great gift giver as being rather emaciated, hardly the rotund, red-suited fellow of modern times. In many cases he appeared beardless, and was dressed in everything from a buccaneer’s garb to sort of sleek, chic smoking jacket.
Santa Claus - at least as we know him today - would appear to have been an invention of 19th century America. But scholars have traced the roots of the Santa myth back to St. Nicholas, a very real Byzantine saint of the 4th century who is said to have inspired awe in the hearts of all seafaring men. He was also the patron saint of children, and of such nations as Russia and Greece.
Not much is known about the historical St. Nicholas, outside of the countless legends which apparently began springing up even during his lifetime. One of those legends states that he miraculously restored life to three young boys who had been murdered by a butcher; other such tales also revolve around miracles in which he saved children from tragedy.
St. Nicholas’ fame spread throughout Europe, and eventually gave birth to Great Britain’s legends of Father Christmas. The character then migrated to the New World with the Dutch who settled in New Amsterdam (later renamed New York); his Dutch name, “Sinterklas,” was pronounced “Santy Claus” by America’s English-speaking colonists.
The American incarnation of Santa can be traced at least as far back as author and satirist Washington Irving, who portrayed him as driving a horse-drawn wagon loaded with presents for the children of early New York’s Dutch residents. In his book Knickerbocker’s History of New York, published in 1809, Irving described Santa as the guardian of New York City and pictured him as a stereotypical Dutch settler of the day: jolly, bearded, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and smoking a long pipe.
In 1822, Rev. Clement C. Moore wrote the immortal poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” - better known today as “The Night Before Christmas” - which added several pounds to the jolly old elf’s physique and introduced some of the details that have gone on to become a permanent fixture of the Santa myth: his entry into homes via the chimney, the sack of toys, his airborne sleigh pulled by eight magical reindeer, and more.
Half a century later, in illustrations produced for Harper’s Weekly magazine, artist Thomas Nast took inspiration from Moore’s poem and produced a character who truly looked as if his belly would laugh “like a bowl full of jelly.”
In 1902, children’s author L. Frank Baum - best known as the creator of The Wizard of Oz - wrote a book entitled The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. In explaining the origins of Santa Claus and all that is associated with him, Baum created a character whose life has elements of both myth and magic; he provided the persona of Claus with depth and dimension, making him a kind, loving, unprejudiced spirit.
But Baum’s version of Santa’s life has its dark moments, as well. Just as in his more famous Oz books, the writer had more to get across to his readers than just a simple fairy tale. At one point in the book there is a bloody war between Santa’s friends and a group of nasty creatures whose mission is to destroy Santa’s good work. Good wins out over bad, of course, and Baum sums up the moral of the tale: “...It is the Law that while Evil, unoppressed, may accomplish terrible deeds, the powers of Good can never be overthrown when opposed to Evil.”
“Baum obviously felt,” author Naomi Kleinberg wrote in 1983, “that he had an emphatically cautionary message to impart in what he perceived to be a world rushing headlong into modern madness - a message that is, perhaps, even more pertinent today in a world that is, more than ever, in need of a few generous deeds.”
Most of the credit for the physical appearance of the modern version of Santa Claus goes to Haddon Sundblom, the artist who in the 1920s created a series of paintings used as advertisements of the Coca-Cola Company. Sundblom’s illustrations cleaned the chimney soot off Santa’s red-and-white suit, wiped the mischief from his smile, and replaced it with solid good will - creating in the process what would seem to be the ultimate personification of this iconic holiday character. It is Sundblom’s version of Santa that continues to permeate seasonal activities today, appearing everywhere from television and movies to shopping malls and Christmas parades.
Although first painted nearly a century ago, Sundblom’s works have continued to be used by Coca-Cola in some form or fashion ever since. The paintings have also been reproduced as lithographs for collectors, and have even shown up from time to time in various art galleries across America.
Another facet was added to the legend of Santa shortly after Sundblom’s version of the character made his first appearance. Originally created as an in-store promotional character for the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward retail store chain, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer quickly became the most beloved member of Santa’s team.
Rudolph’s initial popularity was the result of Gene Autry’s successful recording of the Johnny Marks song about the character. But over the years the critter with the built-in headlight has been the lead character in various television specials and theatrical films; has served as a “spokesdeer” for several different battery companies; and for a time was even the hero of his own comic book!
Many Christians over the years have voiced displeasure over Santa’s association with the Christmas holiday. Such criticism has centered around the claim that the Santa myth obscures the spiritual significance of the holiday: the celebration of the birth of the Christ child.
But an animated television special entitled Santa Claus Is Coming To Town - which originally aired in the early 1970s and has been a perennial favorite ever since - provided a reasonable and legitimate explanation as to why Santa has become synonymous with the Christmas holiday. The story’s explanation was that Santa personally selected Jesus’ birthday as the day he completed his gift giving rounds as a way of commemorating the greatest gift ever given.
Santa Claus has probably been the subject of more theatrical and television films than any other character - fictional or otherwise - in American culture. Such films have ranged from the classic Miracle on 34th Street to more contemporary fare as The Santa Clause. Santa even blazed a trail for future science fiction heroes James T. Kirk and Luke Skywalker in the 1960s camp classic Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (the film that also introduced Pia Zadora to the world).
In 1985, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind - the producers of the successful series of Superman films starring Christopher Reeve - gave the world Santa Claus: The Movie, their attempt to breath new life into the legend for modern audiences.
In the Salkinds’ version, Santa was a simple woodcutter whose greatest pleasure was making toys for local children. After he and his wife are caught in a snowstorm delivering toys one Christmas Eve, the couple is rescued by magical elves who offer Santa the opportunity to give the same joy to children all around the world. Although the film did not play to adults as well as the producers might have hoped, it nonetheless was a hit among children, thus confirming the character’s enduring appeal.
Some have referred to Santa Claus as the “greatest man who never lived.” But others continue to cling steadfast to their belief in his existence. And, in fact, Santa Claus really does exist - not as a flesh and blood man, perhaps, but rather as a reminder of childhood innocence and a symbol of the happiest of all holidays.
In 1897, a New York youngster named Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun asking, “Is there a Santa Claus?” Editor Francis P. Church’s answer to the little girl’s question became one of the best-known editorials in the history of American newspapers, and today his words still serve as a sort of salve for young-at-heart grown-ups weary of the realties of grown-up world:
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence... The external light with which childhood fills the world would be exitinguished.
“...No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
(Copyright 1992, 2015 by John A. Small)
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