A Brief History of Santa Claus

American advertising finished the job, but it took centuries for Santa to evolve into his current image from St. Nicholas.

Compiled by Leigh Elmore

Thomas Nast's "Merry Old Santa", Jan. 1, 1881 Harper's Weekly


Contrary to what many believe, Santa Claus as we know him today – sleigh riding, gift-giving, rotund and white bearded with his distinctive red suit trimmed with white fur – was not the creation of the Coca Cola Company. Although their Christmas advertising campaigns of the 1930s and 40s were key to popularizing the image, Santa can be seen in his modern form decades before Coca Cola's illustrator Haddon Sundblom got to work.

Prior to settling on his famed red garb and jolly bearded countenance, throughout the latter half of the 19th century Santa morphed through a variety of different looks. From the description given in Clement Moore's A Visit from St Nicholas in 1822, through the vision of artist Thomas Nast, and later Norman Rockwell, Mr. Claus gradually shed his various guises and became the jolly red-suited Santa we know today.

Two covers for the Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell, the left one from 1920, the right from 1922


His roots as St. Nicholas

The name Santa Claus has his roots in the informal Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas (an abbreviation of Sint Nikolaas). St. Nicholas was a historic 4th-century Greek saint (from an area now in modern day Turkey) who had a reputation for secret gift giving, such as putting coins in the shoes left out for him. He was also famous for presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.

Being the patron saint of children St. Nicholas has long been associated with giving gifts to children. The parallels to the modern day Santa Claus don't end there. In his Dutch form of Sinterklaas he was imagined to carry a staff, ride above the rooftops (on a huge white horse) and have mischievous helpers who listened at chimneys to find out whether children were being bad or good. These features all also link him to the legend of Odin, a god who was worshipped among the Germanic peoples in North and Western Europe prior to Christian-ization.

Although in Europe the feast of St. Nicholas, typically on the December 6th, was very popular throughout the Middle Ages, after the Reformation in the 17th century the celebration died out in most Protestant countries, apart from Holland where the celebration of Sinterklaas lived on.

Santa Claus as illustrated by Frank A. Nankivell in Puck, v. 52, no. 1344 (December 3 1902)

Prior to Christianization, the Germanic peoples (including the English) celebrated a midwinter event called Yule. With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas. During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. The leader of the wild hunt is frequently attested as the god Odin and he bears the Old Norse names Jólnir, meaning "yule figure" and the name Langbarðr, meaning "long-beard."

The god Odin's role during the Yuletide period has been theorized as having influenced concepts of St. Nicholas in a variety of facets, including his long white beard and his gray horse for nightly rides, which was traded for reindeer in North America.

Margaret Baker comments that "The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts.

Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St. Nicholas and the Christchild became a leading player on the Christmas stage." (Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore: A Guide to Seasonal Rites Throughout the World by Margaret Baker). He typically represented the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, but was not associated with either children of the bringing of gifts.

St. Nicholas "Lipensky" as he appears on a Russian icon dated to 1294 from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod (images courtesy publicdomainreview.org)


The 17th century

In the 17th century in northern Europe, after the Reformation, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas became unpopular as the Catholic Church declined.

So in England, he became 'Father Christmas' or 'Old Man Christmas', an old character from stories and plays during the Middle Ages in the British Isles and parts of northern Europe. Father Christmas – also known as Old Father Christmas, Sir Christmas, and Lord Christmas – a traditional figure in English folklore and is identified with the similarly bearded Old English god Odin. He typically represented the spirit of good cheer at Christmas.

In France, he was then known as 'Père Nöel' in Germany, the 'Christ Kind'. In the early Dutch colonies in America his name was 'Kris Kringle'. Later, Dutch settlers in the USA took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle became 'Sinterklaas' or as we now say 'Santa Claus'.

Many countries, especially ones in Europe, celebrate St. Nicholas' Day on Dec. 6. In Holland and some other European countries, children leave clogs or shoes out on the Dec. 5 (St. Nicholas Eve) to be filled with presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas's horse, they will be left some sweets.

The 19th century

Although the east coast of America was full of Dutch settlers, it was not until the early 19th century that the figure of "Sinterklaas" would make his way properly across the Atlantic and so give birth to the Americanized Santa Claus. Following the Revolutionary War the already heavily Dutch influenced New York City (formerly named New Amsterdam) saw a new surge of interest in Dutch customs, and with them St. Nicholas.

In 1804 John Pintard, an influential patriot and antiquarian, founded the New York Historical Society and promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both the society and city. On Dec. 6, 1810 the society hosted its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner and Pintard commissioned the artist Alexander Anderson to draw an image of the saint to be handed out at the dinner.

In Anderson's portrayal he was still shown as a religious figure, but now he was also clearly depositing gifts in fireside stockings and is associated with rewarding the goodness of children. While "St. Nicholas Day" never quite took off in the way Pintard wanted, Anderson's image of "Sancte Claus" most certainly did.

Cover of the children's book, The Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore.


A year before the New York Historical Society's feast, the author Washington Irving had written about Santa in his satirical fiction Knickerbocker's History of New York, describing a jolly St. Nicholas character as opposed to the saintly bishop of yesteryear – one who flew in a reindeer-pulled sleigh and delivered presents down chimneys. The next key step to securing the image of Santa Claus was the 1822 poem entitled A Visit from St. Nicholas written by Clement Moore, later better known as The Night Before Christmas. Moore drew upon Irving's description and Pintard's New Amsterdam tradition and added some more Odin-like elements from German and Norse legends to create the all-winking, sleigh-riding saint and also the names for his flying reindeer.
St. Nicholas became popular again throughout the Victorian era when writers, poets and artists rediscovered the old stories.

Detail from Thomas Nast's illustration "A Christmas Furlough" for the front page of a 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly.


Taking familiar form

As time went by, more and more was added to the Santa Claus legend. The cartoonist Thomas Nast established the bounds for Santa Claus' current look with an initial illustration in an 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly, as part of a large illustration titled "A Christmas Furlough".
In later Nast drawings a home at the North Pole was added, as was the workshop for building toys and a large book filled with the names of children who had been naughty or nice.

Although Nast had gotten the paraphernalia of reindeer and sleigh down to a tee, the famous red suit was still yet to be set. Over the decades Santa would be depicted in a variety of colors such as blue, green and the yellow.

In the later 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast named "Merry Old Santa" the modern Santa character really begins to take shape. Present is the jolly rotundity and the all-important red of the suit.

The Life and Adventures Of Santa Claus (1902) by L. Frank Baum


And the final touches

The Life and Adventures Of Santa Claus by author of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, with its elaborations and much added detail went a long way to popularizing the legend of Santa. However, in the cover to the first edition of Baum's book in 1902, the red of his suit is still yet to be 'mandatory'.

Illustrator Haddon Sundblom made Santa the most famous consumer of Coca-Cola in the 1930s and '40s.

Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom's depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company's Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was invented by the Coca-Cola Co. or that Santa wears red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand. Historically, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising—White Rock Beverages had already used a red and white Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923.

America's favorite 20th century illustrator, Norman Rockwell, got his hand in the Santa game during the 1920s and '30s with several covers he produced for the Saturday Evening Post.
Earlier still, Santa Claus had appeared dressed in red and white and essentially in his current form on several covers of Puck magazine in the first few years of the 20th century.

(Much of the information in this article was first published on-line as "A Pictorial History of Santa Claus" at publicdomainreview.org.)


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com.

Back to the top


Feature Stories Archive — past articles