A Visit from Santa…Who You Might Not Recognize

Santa, as described in “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” was a tiny, soot-covered elf who looked “like a peddler.” Illustration: Arthur Rackham.

Many thanks to Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, for his research help with this post.

People are always talking about the “traditional” Christmas that used to grace the American landscape, one that was somehow more pure, more spiritual and not caught up in commercialism. The problem is, no one can agree when that was, other than “a long time ago.” Snow was whiter. Air was colder. People were nicer.

The seasonal theme, it seems, is nostalgia.

For example, in the ever-popular “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby in 1942, even then he was longing for a season “just like the ones I used to know.” Certainly we wouldn’t go all the way back to the Puritans, who considered religious spectacles, particularly around Christmas, to be an apostasy.

How about the era of the Founding Fathers, even the early 19th century? Not quite. Christmas trees weren’t really a thing in the United States until the 1840s, and Christmas wasn’t even a federal holiday until 1870. Even then, there was a political angle. President Ulysses Grant (not exactly known as a pious teetotaler) made it a national holiday in an attempt to give the North and South something peaceful and kind to unite around after the Civil War.

But Santa, you say! Now, there’s a tradition! There’s a … soot-stained, pipe-smoking, pot-bellied elf, looking sketchy in a dirty fur coat? With miniature reindeer?

That was the man himself as depicted in “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Clement Clarke Moore’s poem first published 197 years ago today. It’s better known by its first line — “The night before Christmas” — and has been a seasonal constant ever since. The Library’s card catalog lists more than 300 different editions/adaptations through the years, and that, boys and girls, is truly, undeniably, an American tradition.

But in Moore’s foundational, myth-making rendition, Santa is not the large, barrel-chested grandpa that we have known for the past century or so. Instead, Moore’s version of Santa was written during the midst of the Industrial Revolution, on the eve of the Victorian era and half a century before the creation of the light bulb. Santa, as we know him today, did not exist.

The poem was first published anonymously in the Troy (New York) Sentinel newspaper on Dec. 23, 1823. Moore, a Biblical scholar and wealthy real estate developer in Manhattan, eventually claimed credit nearly 15 years later. A friend had sent it into the paper without his knowledge, he later said, and, as an esteemed literary figure, he said the simple poem had been intended just for his children. (The family of Henry Livingston Jr., a military man and sometimes poet in New York, also made a later claim that Livingston was the author. Livingston himself died before Moore claimed credit. Some modern scholars support this view.)

In any event, here’s every description of St. Nicholas in the poem:

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick

and

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler  just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf

One, let’s note that nowhere in the poem is “St. Nicholas” referred to as “Santa.” The actual St. Nicholas was a Christian saint, born in modern-day Turkey in the third century, who gained a reputation as a devout soul who was especially kind to children. His feast day was celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6.

Fast forward roughly 1,500 years. Some Dutch immigrants to New York gathered each year to celebrate his feast day, but with the Dutch nickname of “Sinter Klaas” (short for the Dutch “Sint Nicholaas.”) Washington Irving included this good-natured character in “A History of New York,” his satirical take on Dutch traditions in the region, published in 1809. Moore’s poem was written a few years later, and the jump from “Sinter Klaas” to “Santa Claus” had not yet been universalized.

Second, there’s no mention of the “fur” outfit being red, only that it’s covered in “ashes and soot,” which would render him — well, a grimy little mess. “Sinter Klaas” had no fixed appearance prior to this point, but was often portrayed as a thinner, sterner figure.

Here’s, he’s tiny and old, with a white beard, potbelly and a cheerful demeanor. In the 1931 illustration of the poem by Arthur Rackham at the top of this post, you can see something of how he was described, although by that point, Rackham skipped the soot-covered coat and the pipe.

Thomas Nast, “Merry Old Santa Claus,” 1881. Prints and Photographs Division.

It was a full generation later that America got the Santa that we’d recognize today.

This image was the creation of Thomas Nast, often credited as the “Father of the American Cartoon.” (Nast also came up with the modern images of Uncle Sam, the Republican Elephant and the Democratic Donkey.) Note that “Santa Claus” by now was the character’s name. Nast introduced his sketches of Santa in Harper’s Weekly, and the image above first appeared January 1, 1881. It quickly attained a status akin to an official portrait. Many of the trappings of the Santa story were supplied by Nast’s drawings — his red coat, his pipe, his workshop, and even his North Pole location first appeared in Nast’s Santa vignettes. This made sense, as explorers had not yet reached the North Pole. 

Later iconic renditions followed, such as in 1902 when L. Frank Baum (“The Wizard of Oz”) took a shot at an origin story with “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.”

Book cover of “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus,” illustration by Mary Cowles Clark. Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill, 1902

In Baum’s take, Santa did not begin life as a Greek/Turkish priest, but as a mythical creature tied into the world’s earliest mysteries. He’s found as a baby in the Forest of Burzee by Ak, the Master Woodsman of the World, and placed in the care of the lioness Shiegra. He eventually settles in the Laughing Valley of Hohaho (not the North Pole), delivers gifts to kids and is granted immortality. Here, in the illustration by Mary Cowles Clark, he’s rocking some serious red boots and pairing them with a stylish black coat with leopard-skin trim.

By that point, America had been seeing popular renditions of Santa for three quarters of a century, or about three generations. The children who had first read Moore’s poem were now grandparents or great-grandparents. The consensus had been reached on what he (mostly) looked like.

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