The Origin of the American Santa Claus

In the United States, the Christmas season starts the day after Thanksgiving. It is simultaneously a genuine holiday and the most significant retail season of the year, as buying gifts for Christmas is a huge economic phenomenon—one that sometimes diminishes the good feelings common to the season.

Christmas is celebrated all over the world in varying ways. The American version has typical symbols, which include Christmas trees, candles in the windows, wreaths on the front door, festoons of pine branches, mistletoe atop doorways, Christmas stockings fastened to the mantlepiece, and colorfully wrapped presents underneath the tree. Trees are decorated with hanging ornaments, usually designed to reflect the colored lights wrapped around the tree. Tree lights are turned on at night so the trees can be seen from outside. Trees are often topped with a star ornament, symbolizing the star over Bethlehem. The outsides of homes are often brilliantly decorated with lights and figures—some homes have hundreds of thousands of lights.

The iconic figure of Christmas is Santa Claus. The story, a memory of folk tales, has Santa flying from the North Pole each Christmas Eve in a sleigh powered by magic reindeer. Santa visits every home, climbing down the chimney and leaving presents under the tree. Pictures of Santa are everywhere, and figures of Santa decorate yards and roofs, stores and malls, and the tradition of sending Christmas cards.

This version of Santa Claus has some interesting roots. One root is that ‘Claus’ seems to come from the colonial Dutch rule in New York City. Dutch New York was conquered by the English in 1663, but Dutch traditions lingered on for centuries. The other significant sources for today’s American Santa Claus are an 1823 poem and a series of annual Christmas covers for a popular magazine from 1863 to 1888.

The poem is A Visit from St. Nicholas, by Clement Clarke Moore, published in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823. Troy is a small city in upstate New York. The poem begins “Twas’ the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…” The poem introduces Santa’s flying sleigh and names the eight reindeer who pull the sleigh. The poem’s Santa is fat and jolly and wears fur. The poem rapidly became famous and has been part of the sentimental American Christmas ever since.

The iconic picture of Santa was created by Thomas Nast (1840-1902), probably the greatest American political cartoonist. Nast was also responsible for the Democrat’s donkey and popularized the Republican elephant. Nast was an immigrant from Bavaria, as a child. He had talent for drawing, and was doing caricatures professionally by the time he was 15. He made his name with drawings about the Civil War (this was before there was a method for reproducing photographs in news magazines).

Nast became a featured illustrator for the very popular and very influential Harper’s Magazine. While working for Harper’s, Nast was assigned to do a cover for the Christmas issue, and this became a tradition. Nast did Christmas cover illustrations for Harper’s for 25 years, and his version has become the iconic one of Santa—jolly, fat, white beard, red costume, filling Christmas stockings, carrying a bag of toys on his back and all the rest.

There have been some minor changes. In both the poem and Nast’s drawings, Santa smokes a pipe. The pipe is usually omitted in contemporary illustrations. It would look odd to modern eyes, anyway, being one of the small, long-stemmed clay pipes used in Dutch colonial days. There’s also another oddity. Not many American homes have chimneys anymore, because chimneys mean fireplaces, and few American homes these days have fireplaces. Decorative fake ones are still fairly common, with fake fire in the decorative fireplace (it’s a kind of decorative flickering light that mimics fire). The mantelpieces still exist in many homes, also only decorative, but Christmas stockings can still be tacked to the mantel. The stockings are also mostly decorative, with presents almost always in boxes, wrapped and tied with ribbon and bows, under the tree.

Despite all the commercialism, the Christmas season in the US remains cheerful, with people in a forgiving and often joyful mind set. It’s the time of year when people are most generous to charity and most likely to attend church, and most likely to share meals with family.

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