- Santa is an iconic character, who dominates the media during the holidays.
- Although he’s now a brand influencer used to market products, he was originally a poor monk in Turkey.
- Rich New Yorkers in 19th century America used St. Nicholas as the face of Christmas to make the holiday more tasteful.
- Two poems propelled St. Nicholas into fame and made him the Santa Claus we know today.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: When you think about iconic holiday characters, the first that comes to mind is probably Santa Claus. The jolly old man known for his generosity and cheery demeanour dominates the media during the holiday season, appearing in everything from movies… “Santa’s coming to town.” “Santa, oh my god.” …to advertisements. “Is it cold in Santa Fe, Raleigh, Cleveland tonight?” And it’s easy to see why. Santa sells. And we trust what he’s selling.
But the real-life Santa Claus doesn’t quite resemble the brand influencer of today. He was a poor monk in modest robes, known for his religious zeal and praised for his magnificent miracles. So how did he evolve so drastically?
It’s all thanks to a handful of rich New Yorkers and two short poems.
The tale of St. Nicholas is one that has spread across continents and cultures since the beginning of the third century. Since his story was passed through oral tradition, it’s often impossible to separate fact from fiction when it comes to his actual legacy.
It is said that he began his life as a Christian monk on the Mediterranean coast of Patara, in what is now known as Turkey. From early on, he gave up everything he had and travelled the countryside helping the sick and poor. He was notorious for his religious zeal and his fervent defence of the church during a time when Christians were heavily persecuted for their beliefs. But he is also credited with a number of fantastical miracles.
In one story, he gave a poor father bags of gold to pay for his three daughters’ wedding dowries to prevent them from turning to prostitution. And in another story, he revived three children who were murdered by a butcher and hidden in pickling barrels.
These terrific feats concerning his generosity and his care for children are what made St. Nicholas popular among the common people. And when he died, he became a beloved saint and was given a holiday to celebrate his benevolence.
As his fame spread across Europe, his tale was mixed with local folktales of flying chariots and elves. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas was rumoured to have left chocolate treats or small gifts in the shoes of good children and coal or a bag of salt in the shoes of bad children. He was described as a big man wearing red clerical clothing with white hair and a long white beard to match. The Dutch called him “Sinter Klaas,” which was a play on the Dutch name, “Sint Nikolaas.”
At the time, St. Nicholas Day was a holiday completely unrelated to Christmas. In fact, Christmas itself began as a celebration of the winter solstice, commemorating the end of the darkest days of winter and welcoming the return of extended sunlight. Nordic cultures celebrated Yule from December 21st to the start of January. The Germans celebrated the pagan god Odin. And the Romans celebrated Saturnalia in honour of the god of agriculture, Saturn. The common thread throughout winter solstice celebrations is that they were meant to be for everyone. So they were often raucous parties fuelled by alcohol.
But while Christianity was still a growing movement, church leaders sought to make the birth of Jesus a holiday as well. They chose December 25th for the celebration in the hopes of piggybacking on existing winter solstice parties. And it worked. As Christianity spread, so did celebrations of Christmas. But because of their close association with the winter solstice, Christmas parties also became loud, unruly events.
Fast-forward to 19th-century America. The European colonists of modern-day New York brought both St. Nicholas Day and Christmas with them. But not everything was pleasant in the New World. Christmas was still a rowdy, drunken street mess. And rampant economic problems, which led to massive class disparity, just added fuel to the fire. The jaded lower classes who couldn’t find work would riot during wintertime. Eventually, these protests grew so violent that a police task force was formed to handle dissenters.
These riots, paired with alcohol-fuelled Christmas celebrations, were distasteful to New York’s very proper upper crust. So this spurred them to make a change. They decided to bring the Christmas holiday inside the house and make the focus family and children. And what better way to rebrand a holiday than to give it a face? And what better face for a family holiday than the face of a saint?
The first problem was that St. Nicholas was not quite as popular in America as he had been in Europe. At least not until the efforts of some of high-society gentlemen, John Pintard and Washington Irving.
Pintard was the founder of the New York Historical Society and St. Nicholas’s biggest advocate, and he pushed to make St. Nick the society’s patron saint. At the same time, the American author Washington Irving joined Pintard’s society and wrote “Knickerbocker’s History of New York,” a somewhat satirical, yet also historical, account of New York’s beginnings, where he described St. Nicholas as an “ever-revered” presence who guided early Dutch settlers to colonise New York.
Together, Pintard and Irving helped familiarise the American people with the persona of St. Nicholas. So, the next step was to reframe him as the face of Christmas.
In 1821, an illustrated poem titled “The Children’s Friend” described a character known as “Santeclaus,” an obvious play on the Dutch name “Sinterklaas.” Santeclaus was shown visiting people’s homes during the night on a flying sled pulled by a single reindeer. And much like in the old Dutch legends, he bestowed small gifts to good children and punishments to naughty children. But what stood out about this story was that Santeclaus didn’t visit families on December 6th, but rather on Christmas Eve.
The following year, an American scholar named Clement Clarke Moore piggybacked on this idea when he wrote the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” But you might be more familiar with the poem’s alternate title, “The Night Before Christmas.” In this poem, Moore played with a slightly different picture of good ol’ St. Nick. Rather than being pulled by a single reindeer, he was guided by eight. And rather than a thin man in clerical robes, he became a jolly, big-bellied man in a fur suit.
The stories went viral. St. Nicholas became the main character of the Christmas season. Sixty years later, political cartoonist Thomas Nast was inspired by these poems and designed the image of St. Nicholas that’s pervasive even today.
Now we see Santa everywhere. On the street, at the mall, and even on our television screens at home. He’s become a fundamental part of the holiday season. But now he’s evolved to be more than just the mascot of Christmas. Since the ’30s, Santa’s been a brand influencer used to help market products during the holidays. And ironically, the traits that help Santa sell products today are the same ones that tied him to Christmas in the first place. The jolly old man is genuine and giving, so when we see him, we trust him almost without question. He makes us nostalgic for childhood and helps us remember the best aspects of life, creating an easily exploitable vulnerability in his audience. Santa sells, and we trust what he’s selling. But despite this drastic evolution from benevolent monk to corporate shill and the perhaps not-so-great intentions that spurred the change, one thing remains true: No matter how Santa changes, he will always exist in our hearts and in our media.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in December 2019.