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Metamorphosis of Santa Claus

Guest Author - Michelle Roberti

Metamorphosis of Santa

The foundation of our American Santa Claus begins with St. Nicholas, a Greek bishop of Myra who lived during the fourth century. St. Nick was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker due to his reputation for giving gifts secretly, such as leaving coins in the shoes of the needy. However, despite his being the national patron saint of both Greece and Russia; St. Nick fell out of favor with the Protestants and his official church holiday, December 6th(though still celebrated in many countries) merged with the day Jesus was born, December 25th in an effort to converge both the religious and the secular.

It was the Dutch who brought “Sintirklass” to America in 1664 since St. Nicholas seemed to survive in Holland despite the Reformation. In 1773 the Dutch name was translated to English thus becoming Santa Claus. John Pintard, the founder of the New York Historical society and brother in law of Washington Irving was instrumental in promoting St. Nicholas as patron saint of New York City and perhaps provided the first illustration of Santa Claus in a pamphlet published in 1810.

Influenced by his brother-in-law and his Dutch roots, Irving the author of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was the first to give American’s their own version of Santa Claus in his book parody History of New York, published on December 6th 1809. Irving, who was further influenced by his fellow Dutch “Manhattanites,” made Santa a sailor (homage to St. Nicholas who is the patron saint of sailors,) and gave him a pipe, along with the well-known gesture of his finger on his nose. New Yorker’s loved what Irving wrote about “Sinter Klass,” in particular his ability to fly across the sky dropping presents down chimneys to all the good children.

Originally published anonymously in 1823 under the title "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas", Clement Clark Moore’s famous poem "The Night Before Christmas" was influenced by his good friend Washington Irving. Although Moore depicted Santa as small as an elf, his diminutive size allowed him to come down the chimney in order to bring gifts for the children. Moore also gave us the idea that Santa was from a cold region since he was dressed in fur from head to toe. However, despite his warm outfit, exactly where Santa came from his not told of in the poem. It is also believed, but not known for sure, whether Moore was further influenced by an illustrated poem written a year earlier that had reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh.

Santa Claus went from an elf to a jovial and regular sized man thanks to news-paper illustrator Thomas Nast. Nast, who was well known for his creation of the Donkey and Elephant political symbols, first drew Santa Claus in 1863 for Harpers Weekly. Not only did he change Santa’s height but changed his fur outfit to one of satin trimmed with ermine. He also added the cow-hide boots, pointed hat and black belt, as well as the idea that Santa came from the North Pole. Due to his German background, Nast was influenced not only by St. Nicholas but by the many German folktales that included elves. It is highly agreed upon that Nast’s illustration of Santa is the secular image that started it all.
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Content copyright © 2015 by Michelle Roberti. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Michelle Roberti. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Korie Beth Brown, Ph.D. for details.


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