How Santa Morphs

Santa Claus as a figurehead has long represented a control on society, what we should aspire to be. But for someone who is portrayed as an icon of permanence, his image is sure subject to influence.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: In so many ways, Santa Claus, a cultural touchstone that evolved from folklore into perhaps the most mainstream entity the world has ever seen, has transcended religion and evolved into a pop-culture discussion point with few, if any, equivalents. Like green bean casserole and pecan pie, the modern form of Santa Claus was heavily shaped by commercial entities, yet never came to be completely defined by them. Over at Tedium, we have written a lot related to Santa Claus over the years, but never have we actually written straight-up Santa Claus content. That changes today. Today’s Tedium talks about Santa Claus as a visual and cultural icon who has had more changes in style than Madonna, a figure that seemingly every single celebrity has dressed up as at some point in their careers. Ho, ho, ho. — Ernie @ Tedium

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A Visit From St Nicholas

Santa, as portrayed on the cover of an 1864 printing of A Visit From St. Nicholas. (Library of Congress)

The commercial and cultural forces that shaped the modern form of Santa Claus

Look, I am not going to tell you that St. Nick was a scheme by the fuzzy suit industry to sell more fuzzy suits, as green bean casserole was a direct attempt by the soup industry to sell more soup.

But I think that the legend lent itself to being compatible with branding, which meant that Santa was bound to be merged with commercialism and cultural messaging that underlined broader cultural trends, particularly those that reinforced societal norms. In many ways, the two threads started separately, then game together in

In 19th century New York City, a handful of figures helped to shape these norms around Christmas and Santa Claus, and teed them up for generations to come.

As we’ve noted previously, Washington Irving proved an important influence on Halloween through his Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But less widely discussed, but perhaps more significantly felt, is his influence on the emergence of Santa Claus as an iconic cultural figure in the United States.

But Irving didn’t come to the realization completely on his own. Also helping was a high-society figure in New York City in the early 1800s, John Pintard. According to historian Mike Wallace, who co-wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about early New York titled Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Pintard saw an opportunity to reconfigure the way that St. Nicholas was perceived as a cultural figure—and also, to realign the way New Yorkers celebrated holidays. He was very much the person to do this.

“If institutions are the lengthened shadows of a man, Pintard has a very long shadow in New York,” Wallace told The Deseret News in 1998. “He helped found many civic organizations, many that are still operating, including the New York Historical Society.”

Father Christmas

A British portrayal of St. Nicholas as “Father Christmas,” from the 17th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

During this period, Christmas was actually something of a rowdy holiday in NYC, but Pintard saw an opportunity to get people interested in Saint Nicholas Day, a holiday in honor of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a religious figure during the days of the Roman Empire, who served in modern-day Turkey. Already, St. Nicholas’ reputation had begun to shift away from the patron-saint figure he had become thanks to his generosity and reputation for miracles. Much of St. Nicholas’ iconic nature had grown from Dutch folklore that was them imported into other countries.

But Pintard saw an opportunity to shift the appreciation even further, and his friend Irving was his channel for doing so. In his book A History of New York, Irving created an image of St. Nick that evolved from Dutch folklore into a man directly responsible for founding New York City, based on a dream by Olaf Van Cortlandt, one of the first Dutch visitors to visit modern day New York. As the book put it:

And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream—and, lo! The good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. And he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud overhead. And Oloffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extent of country—and as he considered it more attentively he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all of which lasted but a moment, and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

And Van Kortlandt awoke from his sleep greatly instructed, and he aroused his companions, and related to them his dream, and interpreted it that it was the will of St. Nicholas that they should settle down and build the city here; and that the smoke of the pipe was a type how vast would be the extent of the city, inasmuch as the volumes of its smoke would spread over a wide extent of country. And they all with one voice assented to this interpretation excepting Mynheer Ten Broeck, who declared the meaning to be that it would be a city wherein a little fire would occasion a great smoke, or, in other words, a very vaporing little city—both which interpretations have strangely come to pass!

So not only is Santa Claus the patron saint of gift-giving, he literally inspired the creation New York City, according to Irving’s folklore.

Pintard didn’t reach his goal of turning Saint Nicholas Day into a major holiday, but St. Nicholas’ reputation nonetheless grew as a result of the added attention. Ultimately, Pintard still attained his goal of building a less raucous, more family-friendly context for a holiday, something that was co-opted by Christmas instead.

In fact, Pintard later leaned into this by convincing another friend of his, Clement Clarke Moore, to create a poem about St. Nick with an explicit Christmas theme titled A Visit from St. Nicholas, or as it’s better known, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.

“Moore’s saint was an obvious derivative of Irving’s,” Wallace told The Deseret News.

Thomas Nast Santa

The image from which all future potrayals of Santa Claus evolved. (Harper’s Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

If Pintard set the stage for how Santa emerged in popular culture, it was another figure from a later generation, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who shaped his visual appearance. Nast, a German immigrant, developed his caricature of Saint Nick as a bearded man in a red suit for Harper’s Weekly in the late months of 1862.

(Later, Nast also played a key role in popularizing another key figure in American culture, Uncle Sam.)

As you’ll find by reading any number of outlets online, Nast’s work had a deep influence on the Union Army during the Civil War, as his visualization of Santa Claus gave the North a degree of ownership over a figure that had quickly gained popular notice in modern society.

Smithsonian Magazine has an excellent take on this tale, which quotes a 1997 New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik, who puts Nast’s Civil War influence this way:

In these two drawings, Christmas became a Union holiday and Santa a Union local deity. It gave Christmas to the North—gave to the Union cause an aura of domestic sentiment, and even sentimentality.

So, if the modern form of Santa Claus wasn’t a completely commercial creation, you could make a strong case that he represents a source of control on society—a way to influence culture in a positive way. We love our stories, and the tale of St. Nick has a lot—he brings us gifts, but only if we’ve been good. He speaks to our generous spirit. And he was helpful as a way to push forth capitalism.

Yeah … let’s get into that.

$100

The denomination of dollar bills that Steve Jobs was said to have handed out to NeXT employees in 1986 while dressed as Santa Claus at a holiday party. (The anecdote first emerged in a 2012 Forbes piece that also said he often joked with employees about firing them. Talk about mixed signals!) I have read more than one take that has described Jobs as a modern-day Santa Claus, someone who gave people experiences they hope to relive year after year. And while I will point out that people generally bought those experiences from Jobs, a skilled salesman, the anecdote doesn’t actually feel all that far off to me knowing Santa’s roots as a modern-day folk hero. And that a capitalist would be suggested as the heir apparent to that role says a lot about Santa, doesn’t it?

Santa Claus Coke

(The Coca-Cola Company)

Santa Claus may give lots of gifts to people, but he’s at heart a hardcore capitalist icon

While Saint Nick wasn’t necessarily the only Christmas-related icon around—we, after all, still put together nativity scenes—he proved important to commercial and economic trends that grew in prominence in the 19th century.

With the industrial revolution picking up steam, for example, factories could be put to work in making things, and those things could be sold to people. In this sense, Santa was one of many accelerants on the fire that is modern-day capitalism, an influence so prominent that he became a driver of things like never-ending holiday movies, Christmas music in late October, and literally taking the whole week off between Christmas and New Year’s.

One could argue that the existence of Prime Day is direct evidence that this idea was simply too good to live on just one day.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that Coca-Cola is often credited for inventing the modern form of Santa Claus. While, as previously established, Santa Claus as a cultural concept existed long before illustrator Haddon Sundblom got a hold of the cultural figure and put a degree of artistic polish on him in the 1930s.

Sundblom, the child of immigrants from Scandinavia, helped to change the way we think about Santa Claus through hard-to-ignore imagery that he created for the company for roughly three decades. (In the midst of this, he also created another iconic portrait of a man who has become familiar to billions, the Quaker Oats guy.)

Coca-Cola is quite proud of this history, in part because it plays into the company’s reputation as being a company whose memorabilia is nearly as memorable as its sodas. Of course they should be—after all, it was perhaps the sheer luck of the draw that Coke was able to take a piece of folklore and make it their own. That’s hard to do even in the best of circumstances—let alone when said piece of folklore is holding a bottle of Coke in his hands.

But just how responsible are they for Santa’s modern appearance? Is there any prior art?

The short answer is yes … but it took a while for Santa to feel like Santa. Case in point—this 1898 silent film by G.A. Smith shows a Santa-like figure, but it’s not one that matches our modern perception of this figure. Far from it, in fact.

In 1912, actor Leedham Bantok played Santa in one of the first films about the holiday icon—a British title—and again, it didn’t match his modern style.

Puck Magazine Santa Claus

Santa Claus, circa 1902. (Wikimedia Commons)

But more illustrative works got closer—for instance, this 1902 illustration by Australian artist Frank A. Nankivell seems to look pretty close, and Norman Rockwell’s many Saturday Evening Post covers seem to have deeply influenced our view of him.

But one can argue that Coca-Cola, for reasons of pure marketing, refined existing work in tradition to polish the edges some more, then used its dominant role in modern society to push those messages forth. And because Coke had a global reach, this image reached further than many of the other very disparate portrayals of Santa

Some, such as AlterNet contributor Valerie Vande Panne, suggest that Coke, on this front, was arguably too successful:

American families still place statues of Santa on their mantle and leave food and drink out for him on the night before Christmas. His image is splashed everywhere, supposedly not as a symbol or a god to worship, but as a decorative marketing tool.

That makes Coke’s Santa quite possibly the first time a corporation invented something to sell a product that the masses appropriated to celebrate the biggest American financial holiday of the year. Coca-Cola probably didn’t realize it was creating and defining a new god for generations of Christmas visions and shopping trips, but that is exactly what Coke did.

In a world where marketing is influence, and influence is often deep-seated, of course marketers will have the upper hand in shaping how we portray our folk heroes.

I feel like I’m afraid to read about the Tooth Fairy, out of fear that I’ll quickly realize that he was invented by Colgate to convince us to brush our teeth.

“Santa’s operation, in other words, amounts to an egalitarian, internationalist, luxury-commodity distribution apparatus that blatantly disregards the mores of the free market, and is based neither in the pursuit of profit nor in the hierarchy of charity, nor grounded in the nation state.”

— Adam Gaffney, a political writer and physician, making the case in Jacobin that Santa is in fact not an icon of capitalism, but of socialism in a 2018 piece fittingly titled “The Socialist Case for Santa Claus.” The piece, which I’d argue has a bit of a humorist bent to it, points out that richer kids tend to get better gifts and compares Santa’s promise to other holidays, but (fittingly) ends, “A better world is possible, but until we have it, we can fake it once a year by lying to our kids.” And in a way I think he’s actually right. The modern-day Santa Claus is egalitarian and makes egalitarian promises to children, but at his core, he is a dream of the kind of utopianism that capitalism often promises but never quite offers.

So what should we make of this tension, of this folk legend who is based on an actual person who lived nearly 2,000 years ago, but whose modern form is so utterly divorced from the original form that he’s more rumor than reality?

There’s a case among the Santa skeptics that we should just tell kids that Santa is not real, when he clearly is.

But I think in many ways, some of this is just that Santa’s cultural position, whatever it is, is extremely malleable and can be worked into any possible context.

Hence why we have a movie called Violent Night, where Santa is turned into a Nobody-style action hero played by David Harbour. (Clearly not the kind of person John Pintard had in mind when pitching NYC on Santa Claus.)

I think Santa, for reasons of convenience and malleability, will continue to be morphed into whatever form the culture deems convenient. Traditions will keep up with the times. Recently, I watched a religious hymnal that featured a preacher in a suit playing metal riffs on a Paul Reed Smith guitar. The riffs were better than they had any right to be. As Larry Norman once asked in the title of a song, “Why should the devil have all the good music?”

And likewise, why should Santa look jolly and wise in a culture that seems to pride other things? Why isn’t Santa rocking a jean jacket and ironic tee and listening to Wilco in the sleigh? Why doesn’t Santa wear tracksuits and go to the gym three days a week? When COVID hit, did Santa use Zoom? Why does Santa, Turkish by birth, have to be so WASPy in mainstream portrayals? Does he even have to be male? Or white?

Maybe in 100 years, Santa will evolve into a pure digital entity, like ChatGPT, that can make gifts suddenly appear around your desk. Maybe Santa will gain a reputation of being the maker of the first super app in the Western market, or perhaps he’ll gain a reputation as an action hero of some kind, along the lines of David Harbour’s portrayal.

But I think, just because Santa has evolved to look the way he does, means that he will stop evolving. After all, we have more effective tools of influence now than we did 200 years ago—by a long shot.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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