St. Nicholas, the Wonder-Worker,
(Св. Николай Чудотворец), Moscow 1677
"If anything happens to God, we have always got St.Nicholas" - Russian proverb
The reason I say the legend of St. Nicholas giving gifts to children is because the real history is confused and combined with many pagan rituals and gods - "Nicholas' existence is not attested by any historical document, so nothing certain is known of his life except that he was probably bishop of Myra in the fourth century ..." - Encyclopaedia Britannica 99. In 1969 Pope Paul VI decreed that "there was doubt that [this saint and 39 others] ever existed." He and 39 other saints have been dropped from the official Roman Catholic Calendar - St. Nicholas is now an "optional" fest day. But still in many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. On December 6th, his feast day or St. Nicholas Day, children receive gifts rather than on January 6th, Christian Orthodox Christmas Day or December 25th, Christian Christmas Day.
St. Nicholas of Myra, 10th Century icon
Grandfathers dress up like St. Nicholas and offer gifts to good children and presents of coal made of sugar if the children have been naughty. In 1087 St. Nicholas' relics (San Niccolo) were transferred to the Italian city of Bari, where they still rest now in the 11th century basilica of San Nicola. Below is an Italian sculpture of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy.
St. Nicholas, being Greek/Turk was usually painted or shown with a dark complexion in ancient times (but not in modern ones!).
Charles W. Jones (1905-1989) was an American medievalist known outside scholarly circles for his research on the tradition of Santa Claus and the St. Nicholas' legend. He wrote on these subjects where he explained forcefully that "There is no evidence that the cult of Santa Claus existed in New Amsterdam [New York] or for more than a century after British occupation." He made a compelling case that this ritual did not cross the Atlantic because the Dutch were Reformation Dutch who believed that it was heresy and evil to venerate saints and they had severe laws prohibiting the celebration of St. Nicholas. Santa Claus was consciously reconstructed in mid-19th century New York and was indeed an invented tradition. In 1881, a cartoonist, Thomas Nast, made some illustrations of Santa showing him with a big belly in a red suit. Below is the December 24, 1881, front page of Harper's Weekly with Thomas Nast's Santa Claus.
Until 1881 Santa was shown in different colored robes: blue, green, purple, brown, white in addition to red. See the vintage postcards below.
The modern tradition of our Santa Claus was invented by writers (Washington Irving, Clement C. Moore, Charles Dickens, etc.) and artists. Norman Rockwell (American illustrator and painter, 1894-1978) painted Santa as well. Below are some of his illustrations.
At the Oglethorpe University Santa exhibition I read that our current figure of Santa was created by Coca-Cola in 1931 during the Depression to encourage people to drink Coke during winter. He was drawn wearing a red and white suit as these are the colors of Coca-Cola. The portrait of this Santa was so popular that in Iceland, in the 1930s, groups of men dressed in these Santa costumes were called "Coca-Cola Santa." Click on picture to enlarge.
Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976) was a leading illustrator who produced famous advertizing images including Aunt Jemima, the Quaker Oat Man and Santa Claus. The Coca-Cola Company had contracted with Sundblom to create their "Coca-Cola Santa" paintings to be used in their marketing campaigns.
For inspiration Sundblom read Clement Mark Moore's 1822 poem "A visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas.") As other illustrators and artists had done he changed St. Nicholas' complexion from a Middle Eastern one to a white one. For the next 33 years Sundblom painted portraits of Santa Claus for Coca-Cola as a cheerful, friendly and plump grandfather figure. His original model was Lou Prentice, a neighbor. In the 1950s after Prentice passed away Sundblom used himself as a model. Sundblom created the modern image of Santa in the United States and everywhere else. Sundblom's Coca-Cola Santa was reproduced on posters, magazines, billboards, calendars, and many other advertizing objects. This commercial Santa is the one children love.
Through the years the portraits of Santa Claus have not changed much since Haddon Sundblom's first Santa.
Some of these drawings and paintings were exhibited at Oglethorpe University, courtesy of the Coca-Cola Corporation (and still are until next Saturday, December 21, 2013,) headquartered in Atlanta. They are shown here courtesy of Coca-Cola and Oglethorpe University.
Santa Claus is more popular than ever. An AP-GFK poll (Associated Press GFK) found that 3/4% of non-Christian adults believed gifts came down the chimney when they were children. Santa is celebrated all over the world, in Christian countries, secular ones or countries with other religions. In Communist China the Chinese celebrate Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) with gifts and decorate their homes.
Our international Santa Claus (made in the USA) has little ties to the spirituality of Christianity - he was created by writers and artists then a large corporation to attract more business. For example, the French Solis Institute (specializing in ethnic marketing) found after a poll in greater Paris, France, that 47.5% of Muslim from North Africa celebrate Noel with Santa - 15% using a pine tree, and 39% giving gifts to children. Even many French Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Agnostics and Atheists celebrate Noel in France with Papa Noel (Santa Claus.) The French word "Noel" comes from two Gallic words "Noio" (nouveau/new) and "el" (soleil/sun.) It is now embraced as a "cultural" family tradition. (A 2006 Harris Interactive Poll found that the French are: 32% Agnostic, 32% Atheist, 27% believe in some sort of God or a supreme being - of the Christians, only 5% report attending church on a regular basis - even though most French people say they are Catholics....) The French are surprised to learn that in the US some people reject Santa Claus on any ground. My cousin in France (in greater Paris) told me that on her streets, she sees many decorated trees at that time, some from Jewish families and some from families originally from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia among others - it is just a fun time for children and adults.
If our jolly Santa Claus can unite people of many backgrounds, faiths and cultures in peace and friendship - why not ? This is certainly a good thing! Whatever his origins, Santa Claus is a harmless figure spreading joy and happiness. Let's celebrate! and a Joyeux Noel to all!