The Daily Heller: ’Twas the Icon of Christmas

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Santa Claus so personifies Christmas that it would be inconceivable not to think of him as such. In fact, he stands with Uncle Sam as one of American capitalism's great icons. But it wasn't until 1862 when the American political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who conceived of the Democrat donkey and Republican elephant, rendered the quintessential commercial Santa in pen and ink.

Like most Americans, Nast was an immigrant. The Bavarian-born artist originated this archetype while working for Harper’s Weekly, in an attempt to spiritually uplift Union Army soldiers and their families who made sacrifices during the darkest days of the bloody Civil War.

Nast was inspired by his own childhood memories of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century German bishop known for kindness and generosity as he traveled from village to town wearing a tall miter, flowing robe and long white beard, dispensing presents to one and all, more or less. Saint Nicholas Day in Europe (Dec. 6) was traditionally devoted to gift-giving, so Nast’s Santa, the newly deputized monitor of who’s naughty and nice, also bestowed toys on well-behaved children everywhere.

Nast further developed Santa mythology by incorporating such German folk characters as dwarfs (i.e., elves) as trusted helpers. In 1866 Nast’s drawing "Santa Claus and His Works" established him as a toy maker par excellence, and in his 1869 book of collected drawings, with a poem by George P. Webster, Nast established the frigid and mysterious North Pole as home of Santa's bustling workshop.

Thomas Nast.
Norman Rockwell.

Nast’s 1881 drawing of the jovial and portly “Merry Old Santa Claus” influenced Norman Rockwell’s 1920 Santa Claus cover for the Saturday Evening Post, which became a veritable trademark that contributed to the modern Santa “brand.” But actually the most popular of all was introduced in 1931 when Haddon Sunblom painted an even more iconic version of the rotund and rosy-cheeked Santa to promote the sales of Coca-Cola.

Haddon Sunblom

Using himself as model, Sundblom painted a new tableau each and every year for 33 seasons. Santa became more recognizable than any comparable commercial trademark, and when placed in advertisements with other secular Christmas personae, like snowmen and reindeer, Coca-Cola totally dominated the popular imagination and holiday market—and isn’t that kind of marketing what Christmas is all about?

In addition to these commercial inspirations, many religious symbols—remember, Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ, not the birth of Santa—were borrowed from non-Christian ritual. In the fourth century the Roman Church declared that Christmas should be celebrated on Dec. 25 and borrowed pagan feasting and gift-giving from the Roman Saturnalia (also celebrated in December). Yet certain celebrations were just too threateningly idolatrous: The Church long forbade decorating houses with twigs from evergreen trees and shrubs, which was also common practice during Saturnalia. So it was not until the 16th century that Germans introduced Christmas tree decorating, spawning a brisk new market for decorative and symbolic trinkets and baubles. While in England around this time, the Puritans, influenced by the Protestant reformer John Calvin, forbade overt observances of Christmas altogether, which suppressed the manufacture of icons for a long time.

Arguably the most significant fusion of religious and secular iconography occurred in 1822 on Christmas Eve when New York poet Clement Clarke Moore read to his children a self-composed rhyme called "An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas" (known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). In his verse Moore first introduced St. Nick’s reindeer and named them—Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph (the one with the cherry nose). He further choreographed St. Nick’s triumphant, albeit astonishing, entrance down the narrow chimney. Moore's protagonist was actually pretty small—in fact, the poem describes a miniature sleigh with a little old driver—which might account for how such a large man could squeeze down such tight flues.

By 1843 Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” illustrated by John Leech, added even more joyous Christmas metaphors, like the bloated and sated Spirit of Christmas Present, who entered the seasonal liturgy along with visions of sugarplums, snow angels and bulging stockings. By the mid-19th century, England’s Prince Albert (of tobacco in a can fame) decreed, as only a royal can do, that Puritan prohibitions were to cease and tree decoration should be the right of all, which popularized the practice across the British Empire. Incidentally, the ritual of sending festive Christmas cards began in 1843 when Sir Henry Cole of the Victoria and Albert Museum customized the first card to combine generic holiday imagery with personal greetings. Thus began one of the many traditions of the most joyful consumer-driven holiday of the year. And to all a good night.