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Cokelore Claims Santa

by V (writer), Venice!, December 20, 2006

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For a vast majority of the Western world, Santa Claus is an essential figure in our upbringing. I know that, as a child, I’d spend the wee hours of Christmas Eve in my pajamas, on the windowsill, nose pressed hard to the glass, inspired by holiday season, television viewing, desperate to catch a glimpse of Father Christmas clamoring around on our roof top (despite the fact that we did not have a chimney – like every other house nearly astride the Equator). But times have changed. My parents told me that Santa wasn’t real and half hearted, counter-corporate culture activists told me that Coca-Cola invented him.

This gift-giving icon, understood to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve to sleeping children and adults who have been ‘good’ all year, is a widely treasured character, the most significant symbol of secular Christmas celebrations. But just where did this kind, fat man in a red suit come from? The North Pole we were told. The North Pole? Not So. Like many things to do with Santa Claus, this was a fabrication.

A prime example of folklore/ mythology, adults know Santa Claus is fiction, but present him to children as fact. An evolutionary character, Santa Claus gathered iconography and history from European folklore, acquired a fancy, new costume in the U.S.A., and spent time on developing his character and finding his ‘motivation,’ before bursting finally onto the world stage.

‘Father Christmas' is the name given to the gift-giving figure of Christmas in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, other Commonwealth countries and many other countries - translated into local variations (‘le Père Noël’ in France and ‘Papa Noël’ in Brazil for instance). The traditional Father Christmas was not at all associated with children or the bringing of gifts. He is alleged to have roots in paganism, associated to the Saxon custom of dressing an elderly male in robes as ‘King Winter.’ In ‘The Vindication of Christmas,’ a book dating from the time of the Commonwealth, Father Christmas was portrayed as being a character of merriment and alcohol who questioned the charitable motives of the ruling Puritans of the time.

For some time in Europe, Father Christmas was superseded by a figure of baby Jesus, sometimes known as ‘Christkindlein’ - the Christ child. In Afghanistan he is ‘Baba Chaghaloo,’ in Armenia he is known as ‘Gaghant Baba’ and in Mexico, he is ‘El Niñito Dios.’ He has many names in many languages. It is generally considered an Americanism for people from countries that have traditionally acknowledged ‘Father Christmas,’ to address him as ‘Santa,’ even though, essentially today, they are one and the same.

Santa Claus is the popular, American term for the Dutch, ‘Sinterklaas’ which is a contracted form of Sint Nicolaas (Saint Nicholas). ‘Santa Claus’ is actually a mispronunciation of the Dutch word ‘Sinterklaas’ by the English settlers of New Amsterdam - later renamed ‘New York.’ Sinterklaas was and is a major, annual celebration in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. It falls on the eve of St Nicholas’ Day, December 6th, which is the day for gift-giving and the climax of many days’ festivities.

Saint Nicholas is the beloved, true-to-life star of a Dutch folktale which tells the story of one Bishop’s generosity. As folklore tells it, Saint Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the needy, sick and suffering, his charity so widely received that his legend traveled far across several continents. It is here perhaps that the earliest recognition of current day Santa Claus’ attire began – with Bishop Nicholas’ red Episcopal vestments.

Among Orthodox Christians, the historical Saint Nicholas is well revered. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, children, and students in Greece, Russia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. He is also the patron saint of Barranquilla (Columbia), Bari (Italy), Amsterdam (Netherlands) and of Beit Jala in the West Bank of Palestine.

Another contributor to the evolving life and look of Santa Claus was the Russian character of ‘Ded Moroz’ or ‘Grandfather Frost.’ His German folklore equivalent is, ‘Väterchen Frost’ and they are both said to magically travel around the world in one night.

But it was in the city of New York, where modern-day Santa Claus truly began to blossom. In 1804, the New York Historical Society was founded with Nicholas as its patron saint, its members reviving the Dutch tradition of St. Nicholas as a gift-bringer. For ensuing decades, clever and witty, literary New Yorkers depicted him in various states of merriment by way of books, poetry, essays, and illustrations, and his appearance varied as often as the creative method employed. He was small, he donned furry gloves and hats, he had a mane of long locks, he was bald, and he was tall.

On Christmas Eve of 1822 another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a series of verses for his children; his poem was published a year later as ‘An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.’ This is more commonly known today by its opening line, ‘Twas the night before Christmas ....’ In this poem, Moore gave St. Nicholas eight reindeer, naming them all and devising the now familiar entrance by chimney.

In 1863 Thomas Nast, a caricaturist for ‘Harper’s Weekly,’ began developing his own version of Santa. Nast gave his figure flowing whiskers and dressed him all in fur, from head to toe. Nast's 1866 montage entitled ‘Santa Claus and His Works,’ established Santa as a maker of toys; an 1869 book of the same name collected new Nast drawings with a poem by George P. Webster, that identified the North Pole as Santa's home. Although Nast never settled on a consistent size for his Santa figures - they ranged from tiny and elfin to giant - his 1881 ‘Merry Old Santa Claus,’ drawing is very close to the Santa that we know today.

A Boston printer named Louis Prang introduced the English custom of Christmas cards to America. In 1885 he issued a card featuring a Santa sporting a red suit. Eventually it was this red-suited, kindly, chubby and ruddy-faced Santa - Santa as superhero - that proved more popular than the fur robed Santa.

In the early 1930s the ever growing and successful Coca-Cola Company was looking to increase its profit during the characteristically slow-for-soda, winter period. Enter exceptionally talented, commercial illustrator, Haddon Sundblom. From 1931–1964, Sundblom created memorable Santa paintings that, via extensive and wildly successful, seasonal, Coca-Cola advertising campaigns left the red-suited, fat guy visually embedded in our psyche forever.

Contrary to urban myth, Coca-Cola did not invent Santa. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story? What they did do however, during an enduring era of mix and match Santas, was pick and promote what would become the standardized Santa Claus of the modern world. Today, he is arguably the world’s greatest pop culture icon. And to anyone under ten, he is very, very real.


About the Writer

V is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on Cokelore Claims Santa

Log In To Vote   Score: 2
By Steven Lane on December 20, 2006 at 09:51 pm
What do you mean Santa isn't real---your just joking right? Great, well researched article.
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