Home Context ‘A right jolly old elf’

‘A right jolly old elf’

The story of Santa Claus includes a charitable saint, a hairy pagan god and the advertising genius of America's premier soft drink company

Photo courtesy of @OfficialSanta

It’s Christmas Week, and we figured there’s no better topic to dive into this week at Beyond The Trestle than that of a big guy himself – Santa Claus. 

The world’s most famous gift-giver has a history that spans more than 1,700 years, with geographic roots that are as diverse as Asia Minor and Scandinavia. He’s been viewed as a cheerful, round grandfather figure who delights in the joy of children, as well as a truly weird, fairly terrifying hairy beast that demands offerings and sacrifices.

Fortunately, the story of Santa today is one of merriment and joy. So, in the spirit of the season, we’ve decided to dive into the history of Santa by asking a few key questions and sharing the origins of his story.

Let’s dive in.

So, who was Santa Claus?

Our contemporary image of Santa Claus is grounded in a jolly, older white man living in the North Pole, surrounded by hard-working elves who gleefully toil away preparing presents for deserving boys and girls across the world. It’s one popularized in cinema and collectibles, music and memorabilia. 

In actuality, the historical origins of Santa Claus, aka St. Nicholas, differs greatly from our 21st century American vision. And even those historical roots are a bit murky, with much of the background and context of St. Nicholas himself mixed up with legend and lore.

We know that St. Nicholas was the Archbishop of Myra in Asia Minor, which today is near Demre, Turkey. He is believed to have lived from 304 to 345, and he was present at the Council of Nicea, convened by Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325. It was at this council that such sticky early theological issues like the divinity of Jesus Christ as the son of God were first tackled, as well as the establishment of a uniform date to celebrate Easter.

If St. Nicolas was around for these types of heady fourth century discussions, he clearly was a person of importance in the early Christian Church. We know that he was deemed the “Boy Bishop” since he ascended to the role of bishop at such a young age, and it is believed that — like many early church leaders, as well as some less than scrupulous ones on our TV these days — he amassed a good bit of personal wealth.

As William Crump noted in The Christmas Encyclopedia:

He is said to have been quite wealthy, and his secret acts of charity and munificence became legendary to the point that, following his death, any gift received under mysterious circumstances was automatically attributed to the spirit of St. Nicholas.

It was this benevolence that not only garnered him sainthood, but also helped him stake claim to being one of history’s most charitable and gracious individuals. It also helped to enhance his own story, with the power and mystique of this kindness taking on supernatural characteristics.

For instance, one legend tells of St. Nicholas resurrecting three young children who had been murdered … dismembered … and stuffed into a tub designed to cure meat. Another one claims St. Nicholas appeared to a group of frightened sailors battling a raging storm, with the saint calming the seas and saving their lives after they invoked his name.

What does this have to do with stockings and gift-giving?

According to Crump’s research, our modern-day Christmas tradition of hanging stockings and embracing the spirit of charity and giving stems from a lasting legend involving St. Nicholas. As the story goes, a father was despondent because he lacked the necessary money or gifts to arranged for his daughter to be married (remember, we’re talking about the early 300s here):

The desperate father was about to give his daughters up to lives of slavery or prostitution when Nicholas heard about their plight. On each of three successive nights, Nicholas secretly tossed a purse of gold through the father’s window and supplied the dowries. … Instead of landing on the hearth, where he had aimed them, the purses landed in stockings hanging by the chimney to dry.

Many portraits of St. Nicholas often show him holding three gold balls, representing the gifts he delivered to the family in need. 

How does the North Pole factor into this?

Well, that’s its own weird, winding road, but St. Nicholas is involved nonetheless.

The incorporation of Christianity into local pagan traditions by many factions of the early church enabled its leaders to more neatly integrate the faith into populations that may have proved to be resistant. If we keep in mind that evangelism was all too often mixed with political power in those early days — and, again, in many instances today — we can recognize the rationale for making those decisions.

St. Nicholas, for instance, has a lengthy list of mischievous and ruthless demons associated with his legend, and those tales have helped to shape the character of today’s Americanized Santa Claus. Many ancient civilizations had legends that connected to an odd, hairy beast with godlike powers that could influence the earth. 

This half-god/half-monster would die at the end of each year and be resurrected in the spring, and many ancient civilizations often celebrated with reenactments of this death and ample animal — and human — sacrifices. Enter the “Wildman” into the Christmas story, as noted in this story from L.A. Weekly in 2002:

The Wildman of the Middle Ages was described as a grotesque, bestial, ape-like creature, dark, filthy and bearded. Its body was covered in thick, matted hair and gave off a foul odor. (In later depictions of the wildman, his fur was often replaced by leaves.) Sometimes horned, with a prominent sex organ or wielding a club, he was considered frenzied and insane, and was the personification of lust and debauchery. 

Photo courtesy of wikipedia

Elements of this Wildman would, one way or another, get tied up with those early stories of the benevolent St. Nicholas and exert some influence over the image of today’s Santa Claus (some scholars have suggested the furry coat he wears has a connection to the untamed fur that covered the Wildman).

Over time, this weird, hairy beast evolved out of its brutal nature and morph into a holiday clown, also serving as one source of inspiration for Dr. Suess’s famed Grinch. The Grinch, like the Wildman, has traditionally been linked to living in an icy, snowy landscape, and many legends framed the Arctic region of the extreme north as a hell. Dante, for instance, placed the devil in a frozen domain, while the goddess Hel, in Norse mythology — as well as some marginally connected Marvel Cinematic Universe storytelling — oversaw the chilly world of Niflheim.

As the Santa Claus story began to mix the generosity of St. Nicholas with the darker tales of the Wildman, a new chapter was opened. Over time, Santa was located at the North Pole and, drawing from Scandanavian traditions, given an army of elves to cobble together toys to scatter across the globe.

What about the Santa Claus of today?

The modern depiction of the American Santa Claus can be traced to A Visit From Saint Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore, better known by its enchanting opening line — “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house; Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

Photo courtesy of brewminate.com

In this classic story, we see a generous and magical Santa Claus commanding a fleet of flying reindeer to take him from rooftop to rooftop. Dressed in red and dirty from ash and soot, he harmlessly slips down chimneys to leave presents for the good boys and girls of the world. This offered a stark contrast to the Santas of various shapes, sizes and intentions.

And it was from this vision of Santa that Georgia’s own Coca-Cola Company sprung into action, commissioning illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop a depiction of Santa for a string of upcoming Christmas advertisements in 1931.

A round, jolly Santa Claus, complete with a red suit trimmed in white fur came to life, pitching the world’s most famous soft drink to thirsty holiday revelers around the world.

The ads first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, migrating to other population publications of the time like National Geographic and The New Yorker. For more than 30 years, Coke’s holiday advertising campaign offered a jovial Santa delivering toys to the homes of children, as well as enjoying a refreshing Coca Cola during his stops.

Sundblom’s artwork defined a lasting image of Santa Claus that endures:

Sundblom created his final version of Santa Claus in 1964, but for several decades to follow, Coca-Cola advertising featured images of Santa based on Sundblom’s original works. These paintings are some of the most prized pieces in the art collection in the company’s archives department and have been on exhibit around the world, in famous locales including the Louvre in Paris, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Isetan Department Store in Tokyo, and the NK Department Store in Stockholm. Many of the original paintings can be seen on display at World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Ga.

Regardless of one’s belief about the commercialization of Christmas, there’s no question that Santa Claus has emerged as perhaps the most recognizable, secular figure of lore in the world today. Incorporating his likeness is crucial for many advertising campaigns, and Santa’s visits to department stores and country club luncheons during the holidays is an important marker of the season.

Nowhere is that more true than his relationship with Macy’s, who have adopted the jolly gift-giver as the chain’s face of the holidays. Beginning with his appearance to close out the popular Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade each year — “officially” ushering in the Christmas season across America — to his presence at stores across the country, waiting to pose for photos with children who are eager to make a wish for a gift.

Macy’s is so invested in the brand of Santa Claus, the company deploys a rigorous training and vetting process for the individuals who don the red suit and gray beard. Each year, it publishes the Santa Guide for the Macy’s Santa to provide the needed guidelines to spread the proper amount of holiday cheer. Here’s a sample:

Macy’s Santa is always gentle. His movements are never sudden or threatening. He never forces a visitor, young or old, to sit with him, or even talk to him — even when the parents insist. He lifts children carefully to and from his knee, and never grips them too tight for a photograph. Santa also gently helps visitors off his knee.

It also lets you know what Santa isn’t:

Macy’s Santa is not a game show host. Asking the visitors questions like “Can you name my reindeer?” “Do you remember what I brought you last year?” “What color should you color Santa’s coat in this picture?” or “Can you guess my favorite cookie?” not only can put a child on the spot and embarrass him or her if they don’t know the answer, it also adds too much time to the visit.

In today’s digital age, Santa Claus is “officially” tracked by NORAD, dating back to a printing error on behalf of the Sears Roebuck & Company store advertisement in the 1950s. In that instance, the ad encouraged children to call a special hotline to share their gift requests, though it actually included the wrong number.

The one included in the nationally distributed advertisement? 

That would be the direct line to Col. Harry Shoup, the director of operations for the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD’s forebear. Fortunately, the colonel was a good sport when he got that first call on Christmas Eve in 1955, and he instructed his staff to check radar data to make sure the big guy had clear skies en route to his deliveries.

From that, a tradition was born, with the entity responsible for providing a shield of defense over our nation’s airspace also tasked with ensuring Santa Claus can get where he’s going.

Today, television stations and Twitter accounts ensure a steady stream of (sometimes conflicting) data on Santa’s whereabouts are shared with eager children and weary parents. Sure, it’s a bit of information overload, which is par for the course in 2020. It’s a world where we can get anything we want shipped to us within 24 hours with the simple push of a button on our iPhone, and where that same iPhone is invaded by pessimistic Tweets and, in Georgia these days, unwanted campaign ads that vilify each other.

In a year shrouded in so much darkness, perhaps the magic of Santa is what we need. There’s no harm in believing in something good, something better. It’s why the final words of The Polar Express remain so powerful.

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

From all of us at BTT, Merry Christmas y’all.

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Johnathan McGinty has worked in sports journalism and sports public relations for the past 20 years. If there's an opportunity to put together an oral history on something, he'll find a way to do it.