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By Jim Ignasher
If someone was asked to describe Santa Claus, they would most likely provide a description of Santa as we know him today – a big guy in a red suit, white beard, carrying a sack full of toys, flying in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. However, if the question was posed more than a century ago the answer would be entirely different, and could even vary from one region to the next. That’s because Santa has appeared in many forms over the years, beginning as a religious figure (St. Nicholas) in the 4th century, then morphing into Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, and finally the “jolly old elf” adored by children everywhere.
The historical evidence can be found in antique Christmas cards produced between the 1870s and the 1920s, which offer an insight as to how Santa Claus has evolved over the last 160 years – give or take a decade. The origin of Christmas cards can be traced to the 1840’s, but it wasn’t until the later part of the 19th century that they became popular. These Victorian seasonal greetings were generally in the form of postcards, and were mass produced in countless designs that made the image of Santa Claus more popular than ever. Yet seeing examples of those old cards, one can understand why there might have been some confusion about Santa’s appearance.
Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harper’s Magazine during the American Civil War and afterwards, is generally credited with giving the world its first glimpse at what Santa might look like. Ironically, his first Santa illustration wasn’t revealed until after Christmas when it appeared on the cover of Harper’s on January 3, 1863. The black and white lithograph depicted Santa sitting in a sleigh pulled by reindeer wearing an outfit that made him look more like an early version of Uncle Sam than Saint Nick. Union troops are standing around the sled, and a banner saying “Welcome Santa Claus” can be seen in the distance.
However, Nast continued to experiment with Santa’s image after the war, and in 1881 produced what is perhaps his best known version that laid the groundwork for what came later.
Yet Nast wasn’t the only artist working on Santa’s image, and each had their own ideas as to how the man should appear, beginning with how he was dressed. Some had him in ankle-length heavy coats edged with thick fur, while others showed him wearing a long pull-over hooded garment, while still others depicted him dressed in a plain coat and pants with a red cape or shawl over the shoulders. And artists from Germany, Russia, Poland, and France, sometimes dressed him in the traditional vestments of their countries.
Santa’s coats were depicted in a multitude of colors besides red, from greens, yellows, and purples, to browns, blues, and even white. To make an observation, white doesn’t seem to make sense considering the guy spent his big night dropping down soot-lined chimneys. Perhaps that’s why many early illustrations depicted Santa’s coat(s) edged with dark fur instead of the bright white we’ve come to know. Santa’s boots and caps also varied in color and style from one artist to the next.
Despite Mr. Nast depicting Santa in a reindeer-powered sled, it’s interesting to note that many early representations had him walking his way around the world with the aid of a walking stick or cane, often carrying a Christmas tree or lantern in addition to his bundle of toys. And how he carried those toys also differed. Instead of the traditional cloth bag, some pictures show Santa with a large wicker basket strapped to his back, or one being carried by hand. There are other pictures that depict him with a knapsack, or pulling a small toy-laden sled behind him. Yet he eventually got around to the latest technology, for early 20th century images show him utilizing trains, balloons, airships, airplanes, and even flying automobiles, before he apparently decided that reindeer were more reliable for landing on rooftops.
Some early postcards combined the religious aspect of the season where Santa can be seen making his rounds with a lighted church in the background. In some cases an angel, or the Baby Jesus riding on a donkey next to him accompanies him.
One thing that every artist seemed to agree upon was that Santa had a white beard. It was only the length that was in dispute. Some had it nearly to his feet while others thought a short cropped beard was more dignified. As with the clothing, body shape and facial features were open to interpretation. Some depicted Santa as thin, or even gaunt, while others gave him a more rotund look. His face was usually depicted as unsmiling, or even stern, and he seldom wore glasses, but often carried a pipe. The pipe, by the way, didn’t go unnoticed by tobacco companies, who were quick to utilize Santa’s image to promote their products.
By the early 1900s the length of Santa’s coat began to grow shorter and it now included silver or gold buttons. (One can wonder if this was more for the comfort of department store Santa’s which were beginning to appear.) Additionally, Santa’s simple rope or cord belt was replaced by a brown or black leather one sporting a shiny buckle.
It’s generally believed that the “standard” image of Santa Claus that we’ve come to know today is due to the Coca Cola Company. In 1931, artist Haddon Sundblom created an illustration for a new ad campaign depicting a kind-looking, grand-fatherly Santa, wearing the soda company’s traditional red and white colors. The image was an immediate success, and helped solidify in the public’s mind as to what Santa Claus was supposed to look like.
Despite contemporary notions, there are many who feel that those “old world” Santa’s had a certain charm, which is why they’re still reproduced as figurines, tree ornaments, and even Christmas cards.