Robbie Hargett: Santa’s image, look have sure shown evolution

Dec. 10, 2012 @ 12:52 AM

We’re in the midst of the holiday season, which means we’re going to see the same images we saw last year and the year before, and we’re going to see them over and over.

Our senses will be over-saturated with evergreen trees, jingle bells, snowflakes, and strings of tiny lights. And what figure do we see in every shopping mall, on every street corner?

Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas. He goes by many names, but he sticks to one general image — a jolly, stout, rosy-cheeked, white-bearded, bespectacled man dressed in heavy red garb who delivers presents to millions of children all over the world (those who celebrate the holiday, at least) in one night.

He employs a staff of toy-making elves, prefers to enter homes through chimneys and cruises the night air nine reindeer deep.

We all know these facts about Santa Claus, and we’ve known them since childhood. But do we know where they come from?

The modern Claus traces back to the Dutch Sinterklass, a winter holiday figure based in part on the historical Christian bishop and gift-giver Saint Nicholas. The Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France) celebrated the eve of his name day last Wednesday.

The popularization of the image we see today is largely due to another holiday staple, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” The poem was written in 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at Columbia College, now Columbia University. Moore wrote the poem for his children, and apparently he didn’t originally wish to be connected to it, being a scholar and professor.

Moore’s Saint Nicholas was inspired by a local dutch handyman as well as the historical saint, and he left gifts on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, which had been the traditional day of Santa Claus’ arrival up to that point. According to a book written by Mike Wallace and Edwin Burrows on the history of New York City, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year’s Day as the major winter family holiday at the time Moore wrote the poem, but some Protestants still had reservations about Christmas.

The authors suggest Moore had Claus arrive Christmas Eve to shift the focus “away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations.”

Before this poem, conceptions of Santa Claus widely varied. Now, the basic image remains the same — after being reinforced through cartoons, songs, radio, television, film, books and mass-produced merchandise — but certain changes take place on the periphery.

Indeed, the image of Saint Nicholas has come along way since its religious associations. Contemporary depictions of Santa Claus show him and his elves in a kind of magical toy factory, complete with the latest technology and mechanics. These toy-makers no longer cobble, they mass-produce.

Santa has even been featured in the Fictional Forbes 15 as the richest fictional character in the world. The magazine gave him a net worth of “excessive” in 2005, stating his source of income as toys, candy and coal. In contrast, the 2010 edition of the series gave the ageless Tooth Fairy a net worth of $3.9 billion, which she accrued through “stealing.”

Another entity that makes real Forbes lists is The Coca-Cola Company, which also helped popularize the modern image of Santa Claus with its 1930s ads. Those ads have seen a resurgence in recent years, depicting Santa drinking a frosty Coke in his heavy red-and-white coat, snowflakes all around.

But maybe we’re heading for another change in the Santa image. After all, it’s December, and it’s gotten up to 70 degrees in East Tennessee. Maybe in the years to come, Saint Nicholas won’t need that heavy coat.

— Robbie Hargett is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 218 or e-mail to rhargett@themountainpress.com.