originally published December 24, 2013
I have been taking a number of fiery complaints for my previous two articles, in which I bemoan Santa’s insipid perpetual sweetness and his uninteresting focus on joy and giving and ho ho ho.
Actually, I have received no complaints (zero is a number!), but I like to pretend I court more controversy than I actually do. Still, I stand by my observations. Without a Krampus-type character to swat misbehaving young children in the face – or perhaps to eat them, Tarrare-style – the Santa story fails to deliver the potent narrative that it should. I don’t know whether to blame this on our culture’s increasing insistence in shuffling consequence further toward the fringes of the parenting map, or our collective pussification when it comes to being thwacked in the eye by a ruten of birch twigs.
Perhaps it’s time I dig into the origins of Mr. Kringle – not to unearth some previously unaired scandal, but to help me figure out where we lost our way, and why we don’t frighten children with anything harsher than a lump of coal and the lack of an Xbox under the tree. Of course, before we deconstruct the modern St. Nick, we’ve got to head back to the O.G.
Saint Nicholas was a real guy. He was the Bishop of Myra in the early 4th century, and was known for leaving coins in the shoes of folks who left them out for him. He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children and pawnbrokers. The saints of yore had a knack for pulling off miracles, and Saint Nick was no exception. You think flying around in a sleigh and squeezing a John Goodman-esque frame down chimneys is tricky? Try resurrecting three murdered children who were about to be cured and served as ham by a dastardly butcher.
Saint Nick earned his subsequent incarnations as an annual giver of goodies through one tale in particular. There was a man with three daughters, and he was so poor he couldn’t scrape up a dowry, leaving him in fear that his girls would have to turn to prostitution, or even worse – they might become lonely cat-ladies. Saint Nick tossed a purse full of gold coins through his window for each girl, meaning they could each get married and live happily ever after. Or as happy as women could have been in the 4th century.
Next we’re off to Asgard, where the mighty Odin notches his own little segment of the tradition. Odin liked to head up a big hunting party with his Norse God buddies every year, and the kids who were thoughtful enough to put out a boot with some carrots, straw or sugar for his flying horse to eat were rewarded with toys and candy. Once Christianity stomped its rippling foot around the Germanic lands, the gift-giving story was transmorphed into Saint Nick, who had already earned a reputation for his generosity.
Sinterklaas is a suspiciously similar Dutch character. It was an amalgamation of these two beings along with England’s Father Christmas that found its way to the North American colonies, beginning in New Amsterdam (New York) and spreading outward like a post-turkey-dinner waistline. The chubby bearded man with the long robe came to be immortalized as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This wasn’t retread schtick at this point – the western world hadn’t yet landed on the version of the Christmas gift-giver that was going to shill products and tolerate greedy, smelly children in shopping malls.
That’s Washington Irving, America’s first best-selling author. He was the Elvis of his day, churning out hits like Rip Van Winkle and The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. He wrote biographies of George Washington (whose presidency he lived through) and Muhammad. He coined the phrase “the almighty dollar” and came up with the nickname of Gotham for New York City, which led to the use of the name as the setting for Batman’s adventures.
In his 1812 book A History of New York, Irving threw in a dream sequence that featured St. Nicholas flying through the sky in a magical wagon. He also told tales of quaint old-fashioned Christmases back in Birmingham, England. These images bled into our collective vision of Santa and of what we call a ‘traditional Christmas’.
So the guy who gave Batman’s hometown a name also shaped Santa. Excellent.
A few years later, an anonymous poem appeared in the Troy, New York Sentinel, entitled “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” This piece, which we all know better as “’Twas The Night Before Christmas”, really gave Santa a mugshot we could all imagine. While there has been some debate about this, Clement Clarke Moore was given credit for the poem in 1837, and he happily included it in his 1844 anthology of poetry.
The thing about Moore’s vision is that it directly addresses the mystery of how Santa slips up and down chimneys. He is described three times as ‘little’ and as a ‘jolly old elf’. He rides a ‘miniature’ sleigh with eight ‘tiny reindeer’. The guy might be the size of a Ken doll in Moore’s piece – how he came to be a massive chortling dude is still a mystery.
Employed by Harper’s Weekly, cartoonist Thomas Nast really cemented the modern look of Santa with his early 1860’s cartoons and Christmas cards. This is the same guy who came up with the Republican elephant and popularized the Democrat donkey. He also slapped the famous goatee on the depiction of Uncle Sam.
I’m happy to give Nast a hefty chunk of credit on this one – in addition to being an influential cartoonist, he was also a vicious campaigner against the corruption of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall ring of New York politicos. When offered a $500,000 bribe to stop depicting Tweed and his cronies in satirical cartoons, Nast declined, choosing to keep fighting the good fight. It fits that his legacy is one of the most beloved philanthropists in the western world.
So Santa’s journey to his modern incarnation has travelled through a lot of hands. One hand that certainly deserves a mention belongs to the guy who often gets the credit for completely inventing Santa as we know him. Haddon Sunblom’s 1930’s-era depictions of Santa in ads for the Coca-Cola Company were directly inspired by Moore’s poem. The ads were so incredibly popular, Coke still uses them today when they aren’t shoving cutesy polar bears onto our TV screens.
Sunblom’s style actually helped to inspire one of the 20th century’s most beloved forms of visual art, the pin-up. He moved into that realm himself, and interestingly enough his final commissioned piece was the painting that adorned the cover of Playboy’s 1972 Christmas issue. The perfect fusion of his two greatest contributions to culture.
I still like a dark counterbalance to the Santa story. I think we’re neglecting a truly valuable good/evil dichotomy for our kids, one that is affected by their own behavior. But it’s nice to know the fat man’s history runs a little deeper than an ad for soda.