Modern Day Santa Claus
In modern day Western society Father Christmas is instantly recognisable, by his red and white clothes, white beard and sleigh full of presents. He is an image of Christmas spirit, goodwill to all men and for children a magical man who gives them gifts. How did this version of Santa Claus develop from the much more pious Saint Nicholas?
The origins of the real Saint Nicholas, on which the modern day Santa Claus is based, was discussed yesterday. Within the Christian World Saint Nicolas’ popularity had grown and his story merged with local myth. The earliest reference in England comes from the fifteenth century, when a carol entitled “Sir Christëmas” appears, often credited to Rev. Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree, Devon (AD 1435-1477) and again with Ben Johnson’s seventeenth-century “Captaine Christmas”, although the early English version of Santa Claus was a Yule-tide visitor, not a gift-giver. The modern Father Christmas became popular in the Victorian era.
One of the most famous versions is the Dutch Sinterklaas, an elderly and serious man with white hair and beard. He wears a long red cape, rides a white horse and carries a book that lists whether each child has been good or bad and gives gifts on the 5th December, the night before Saint Nicholas’ day.
The Americans gave us the image of the jolly man in a red suit. Washington Irving adapted the Sinterklaas legend and between AD 1804 and 1821, Santa Claus becomes an elf dressed in fur in an arctic landscape. This version gained popularity with many familiar aspects being added during AD1863-1886. Thomas Nast drew illustrations of Santa Claus where he is portrayed as a fat, white bearded elf, wearing a spotted red-brown suit with the base of the jacket trimmed in white fur. In 1885, Louis Prang added the black boots and belt, a bright red suit trimmed with white fur and a white tassel hat. By the 1920’s the red suit became standardized and is thought to be based on the red robes that Bishops wore and not based on Coca Cola’s colours, a popular misconception.
Recorded on the PAS database is a modern lead Santa Claus (NLM-CA8AE8) wearing a rode and hat which are both fur-trimmed, with a beard and moustache. In the crook of his left arm is a small Christmas tree. This ornament highlights how the modern version of Santa Claus has become, for many, an important figure in the celebration of Christmas.