Immigrants to the New World brought along their various beliefs when they crossed the Atlantic. The Scandinavians introduced gift-giving elves, the Germans brought not only their Belsnickle and Chistkindle but also their decorated trees, and the Irish contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of placing a lighted candle in the window.
In the 1600s, the Dutch presented Sinterklaas (meaning St. Nicholas) to the colonies. In their excitement, many English-speaking children uttered the name so quickly that Sinterklaas sounded like Santy Claus. After years of mispronunciation, the name evolved into Santa Claus.
In 1808, American author Washington Irving created a new version of old St. Nick. This one rode over the treetops in a horse drawn wagon “dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites.” In his satire, Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad brimmed hat. Also, the familiar phrase, “…laying his finger beside his nose…,” first appeared in Irving’s story.
That phrase was used again in 1822 in the now-classic poem by Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly know as “The Night Before Christmas.” His verse gave an Arctic flavor to Santa’s image when he substituted eight tiny reindeer and a sleigh for Irving’s horse and wagon. It is Moore’s description of Santa that we most often think of today: “He had a broad face, and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.”
Up to this point, Santa’s physical appearance and the color of his suit were open to individual interpretation. Then in 1863, Thomas Nast, a German immigrant, gave us a visual image of the cheerful giver that was to later become widely accepted.
When Nast was asked to illustrate Moore’s charming verse for a book of children’s poems, he gave us a softer, kinder Santa who was still old but appeared less stern than the ecclesiastical St. Nicholas. He dressed his elfin figure in red and endowed him with human characteristics. Most important of all, Nast gave Santa a home at the North Pole. For twenty-three years, his annual drawings in Harpers Weekly magazine allowed Americans to peek into the magical world of Santa Claus and set the stage for the shaping of today’s merry gentleman.
Artist Haddon Sundblom added the final touches to Santa’s modern image. Beginning in 1931, his billboard and other advertisements for Coca Cola-Cola featured a portly, grandfatherly Santa with human proportions and a ruddy complexion. Sunblom’s exuberant, twinkle-eyed Santa firmly fixed the gift-giver’s image in the public mind.
St. Nicholas’ evolution into today’s happy, larger-than-life Santa Claus is a wonderful example of the blending of countless beliefs and practices from around the world. This benevolent figure encompasses all the goodness and innocence of childhood. And because goodness is his very essence, in every kindness we do, Santa will always be remembered.