There are many iconic staples during the christmas season but no one can argue the status of Santa. Santa Claus as we know him today is the rump, bearded spirited man with all the gifts. He lives in the north pole and operates all year round with his elves and reindeer preparing for the one night of the year where he delivers toys to all the children around the world. We tell our babies the tales of bad kids receiving coal in their stockings or worse being taken by Krampus! Most kids know about Santa and his good “deeds” and we bet all of you chuckle to yourself every year for keeping your kids' imagination alive! But how did this enigma become our nation's symbol of Christmas? Even more intriguing is the fat man's suit! How and why is Santa wearing a red furry outfit rather than pink or green?! Let's look at a timeline of this man’s infamous red and white trimmed attire.
You cannot talk about fashion without first recognizing the history. So far, the research has led us to believe Santa’s origins are slightly different depending on where ya look. Most origin stories agree he is based on the real guy, St. Nikolaus. Maybe Santa is a distant cousin ehh? St. Nikolaus is a widely popular saint for children, fisherman and wifes to name a few. Some news outlets like the History channel state he was a monk from modern day Turkey living around the 4th century, while others state he was “ a Greek Bishop-turned-saint.” All have a degree of truth. He was believed to be a good man with a pious nature and nack for helping out the needy. He was well known for leaving coins in stockings for the poor kids and funnily enough paying the dowries of three women to avoid them prostituting. We haven’t heard that part of the story before but we never looked at Santa’s history this closely either! Did you know that our Santa had a religious origin? St. Nikolaus is celebrated on Dec 6, the anniversary of his death and is still recognized here and in europe as an important saint.
During this period in art we see bishops wearing traditional robes that were red and white, much like the colors that solidify the Santa we know today. We didn’t see a change to this Santa and his suit for a couple hundred years until he made his way to America.
SANTA IN ‘ MERICA
When the tales of Santa first arrived on our shores, the characterization was closer to what we know today but not fully there. The depiction of the Jolly old man came to the US in the 19th century with the Deutch and their stories of SinterKlaas, the shortened, name of St. Nikolaus. A few key events during this period helped shape Santa and his red suit. This century is really a period of evolution. Santa changes from an overseas, religious household name to an American marketable Icon associated with Christmas.
It is said that the Deutch community would gather to celebrate SinterKlaas in the US on December 6th. A well-known figure around this time, John Pintard pushed for the recognition of old St. Nick with the annual St. Nicholas Day Dinner, December 6. He would handout wood cutouts of St. Nick and although images of this are a rare find, his push for recognition gained the attention of citizens everywhere.
Fast forward to 1809 when famous writer, Washington Irving wrote about the Deutch coming to the US and their “goodly image of St. Nicholas, equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk-hose, and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit.” Obviously this did nothing for Santa’s image but some elements such as a sleigh, and gift gifting stuck. His work spoke to a lot of people and sparked interest in celebrating Christmas.
By the 1820s the holiday shopping season was becoming a marketable trend during this time of the year. Whole sections of the newspaper were dedicated to Christmas gifts and decor. What better way to reel in this idea of Christmas than by having a unifying element similar to the cultural ideas already in the communities (obviously of the Eurocentric area). In his poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” Clement Clarke Moore described a gift giving plump Elf all dressed in fur. This 1823 story described Santa as miniature, rosy cheeked, with a long white beard and a round red nose, but that idea of him being miniature was ditched when the Santa we know today finally made an overt appearance.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast started working for Harper's Weekly in the 1860s and as early as 1863 we see this elvish, stout Santa paving the way. Nast took inspiration from his German heritage, Moore’s santa and a few European influences who had similar “santa” lores of their own. Nast kept his long snow white beard and added the infamous red fur hat and a plump belly. It's important to know that Nast also went through variations of Santa before he helped others visualize the next iteration of Santa.
After the turn of the century the 1900s, after many iterations through the years, solidified the red suited, plump, jolly santa we know today. The early 1900s saw Santa in ads, children's books, lifestyle magazines etc.. He was always plumb and white-beared but his suit was a matter of debate. There are many color variations but the now defunct Racked magazine reported that “The popular Puck magazine always opted for the red suit, though. They first featured Santa on the cover in 1901 carrying his sack to children who spurned his gifts in favor of copies of Tolstoy and Madame Bovary.” This magazine really carried the idea of Santa in a red coat
It was around this time as well that we start to notice the shift of using St. Nikolas or St. Nicholas to Santa. It's weird to think the two names can have different meanings.
During the 1930s a huge campaign from Coca Cola spearheaded this idea of Santa wearing red, no coincidence there. The usage of Santa not only helped boost sales but it was the final nail that solidified Santa in American history. During the mid 20th century Santa was a staple in American culture, chubby gut, the red suit and all.
Hints of Santa around the globe also pop up during this period, although this article primarily focuses on its origins and history in the US.
In folklore of the Netherlands during the 1800s we see Santa with his reindeer giving gifts to children accompanied by a slave named Zwarte Piet, translation Black Pete who resembled the darker Moor people of spain. The netherlands was very much still in the slave trade business, slavery wasn’t abolished till the 1860s. There have been protests happening throughout the years.