22 Dec He’s just the big guy from Jersey
Or… How a saint becomes a legend becomes an institution.
We all know Santa is the big guy in the bright red suit who flies around the world in a sleigh pulled by eight – or nine depending on who’s telling the story – tiny reindeer, from his permanent post at the North Pole in a single evening once a year.
But we also know he’s also known as Saint Nicholas. But who was Saint Nick? He began life as an affluent kid from third century Lycia – modern day Turkey – who was orphaned at a young age.
Which one is right? How did one become the other? And what the heck does New Jersey have to do with it all?
The answer comes next. But first – a holiday card for all of you >>
Nicholas’ parents died in an epidemic when he was very young. The boy took the words of Jesus to heart and sold all he had and gave the money to the poor before becoming a priest and later Bishop of Myra. He became known for acts of charity.
In one story, a man in his village had three daughters. But he was too poor to provide a dowry for them to attract husbands. In those days, unmarried women were more likely to become slaves than old maids so in the night, Nicholas tossed a purse of gold through the man’s window where it landed in the girls’ shoes drying by the hearth. And the tradition of the Christmas Stocking was born.
Another story that lingers through history – three children were abducted and killed by a wicked innkeeper. Nicholas, staying the night at the same inn, dreamed of the crime, confronted the innkeeper and brought the three children back to life from the pickle barrel where their bodies had been hidden.
Nicholas protected children, supported the weak and became the patron of sailors and travellers.
And that’s Santa Claus.
He’s a Catholic saint from Turkey called Nicholas.
But it’s not the whole story.
Nicholas was canonized, and his story traveled. He became “Sinterklasss” throughout Northern Europe and delivered toys and treats and chocolate letters into the shoes of good little boys and girls throughout Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Lichtenstein and other countries every year on his feast day, December 6th.
In those places, he travels through the sky on his white horse with a black helper from Spain called Zwarte Pieten (Black Peter). Peter listens in at chimneys to find out which children have been good or bad.
Curiously, in the same area of the world, the Pagan Norse god Odin travels through the sky on his grey horse called Sleipnir to deliver rune letters to man. Odin travels with black ravens who report to him on the happenings in the world.
And THAT’s Santa Claus.
He’s a conglomeration of legends. Part Catholic Saint and part ancient Norse God. And all the good kids get gifts.
But that’s not the whole story.
The legend of Sinterklaas – now Santa Claus – traveled across the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries into Christmastide and children started to wait up at night hoping to glimpse him on December 24th.
But up until now, the big guy was known as a tall, almost gaunt man of God in a religious habit and bishop’s mitre. It wasn’t until Washington Irving captured St. Nicholas in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York in 1809 that he appeared in a flying wagon over the rooftops of the city.
Then, in 1823, Clement Clark Moore introduced us to the “right merry old elf” whose belly “shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!”
So THAT’s Santa.
A literary figure with some magical flourishes thrown in.
But that’s not the whole story.
A few decades later it was a political cartoonist from Morristown, New Jersey who started to put a face to Mr. Kringle himself. In America, there was a little scuffle going on called the War Between the States and Thomas Nast, who was known for creating caricatures of political characters of the day, started drawing Santa Claus into his scenes of the civil war.
Many say it was his renderings – always portraying Santa as on the side of the Union – that drove an undeniable sense of loss and abandonment into the hearts of the Confederate Army.
Because if Santa wasn’t even on their side, who could be?
Then. After the war. In 1881. Thomas Nast created what we truly know as Santa Claus for the first time. He appeared in Harper’s Weekly in his full, fat, bearded, red-suited, pipe-smoking glory.
And that’s Santa.
The big, beautiful, magical man we all know and love.
But that’s not the whole story, either.
It was 1897 when the first reports of his death started coming in. After consulting a family doctor friend, nine-year-old Virginia O’Scanlon was so perplexed she had to write a letter to the New York Sun to find out the truth herself.
“Papa says, If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.”
And editor Francis Pharcellus Church replied with what may just be the best piece of news writing ever in the history of the medium.
“Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”
The re-Tipping Point
It wasn’t until after the war. After reconstruction. After the South started to rise again that Santa re-found his footing below the Mason-Dixon line.
It was Coca-Cola – that preeminent southern soft-drink juggernaut – that brought him back. Coke first started using a Nast-style Santa in their advertising in the 1920s. And in 1930, in the heart of the Great Depression, they launched a campaign in popular magazines like the Saturday Evening Post illustrating a tall, fat, happy Santa in a crowd of shoppers drinking their iconic beverage. The advertising became so ubiquitous that it completely integrated with the American consciousness.
And as America goes in the 20th century, so went the rest of the word. The Coca-Cola Santa is a universal. It continues to run today. In print. On TV. Almost everywhere you look, you see the same joyful, red-cheeked face.
And THAT is Santa. The Full story. Created and endorsed by advertising.
A 3rd century bishop. A Norse God. A series of stories and cartoons for children and news readers. But it was the messaging power of one of the worlds biggest brands interpreting the visual image created by a cartoonist from New Jersey that gave us Santa.
We all know him. We all love him. Some of us still believe in him and hope he will “make glad the heart of childhood” this year. And next year. And the year after that. He’s still here. And no one can explain him away. It’s not magic. It only seems like it.
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. And a joyous New Year to you all.
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