How To Build A Santa Claus(c) Arthur L. Lortie, 2015Originally appeared in The Taunton Daily Gazette December 8, 2012

Its almost impossible to think of Christmas without conjuring up an image of a jolly fat man, looking a lot perhaps like anyone’s cuddly Uncle Walter – only sober – lugging a bag of presents into your home dressed in warm, but garish, red winter wear. Oh, sure, he has an 8-cyclinder Cadillac and comes in the front door, but any 7 (and under) year old has had no problem easily imagining an 8-reindeer powered sleigh instead, though the idea of stuffing his opulent frame down that chimney chute might be a stretch even for the most gullible child.

Of course, later in life there’s that repressed memory of him trying to “kiss” Mommy underneath the Mistletoe that night -- but you got to take the good with the bad.

But this article isn’t about therapeutic techniques for dysfunctional adults, it’s about the evolution of our image of the Big Guy.

Santa1.pngAs shown here, artist Ed Emshwiller had a couple of original ideas for a Cyber-Santa in this cover for Galaxy Magazine waaay back in December, 1960. Ed figured he’d quite naturally require at least 4 arms to simultaneously carry his bag of goodies and wrestle with Mama, or at least require an atomic pack to generate enough power to deliver presents to approximately 100 million households per time zone overnight without running out of the miniscule energy supplied by gobbling a few tons of milk and cookies.

Our present day Jolly One, as everyone knows, has evolved from both religious and puritanical sources, in keeping with the forgotten but “true” meaning of Christmas. Therefore many of the things we associate with him are merely features that have been transposed from Catholicism and other beliefs.

For example, he represents all Three Wise Men who delivered gifts to Jesus, though he comes from the North rather than the East, and in a fully loaded flying sled powered by reindeer instead of on camel-back. Its unfortunate sign of our times that the sound of a child running gleefully from the tree yelling “Yes!! I got frankincense instead of socks this year!” is seldom heard these days.

But even more than that, Santa has become a God-surrogate, even to the point of acquiring all of the 5 super-human qualities that God has! He’s clearly eternal and ageless, though mysteriously born on the downside of middle age (personally, if I had that power, I’d have stopped aging at about 25 or so). He’s omnipresent as well; the physics of simultaneously delivering all those gifts and dashing and prancing from rooftop to rooftop doesn’t work even with teleportation available.

Combined with his knowledge base of naughty and nice folk, he’s demonstrated that he’s both omniscient and omnipotent!! Plus, like God, Santa is the ultimate giver of rewards and judgments. He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake, He knows if you’ve been bad or good!!

And he makes <shudder> LISTS! Homeland Security can use this guy!

Once children reach that post-waiting-for-the-Easter-Bunny age, they’re aware that Santa has had many names over the years – Saint Nicolas. Father Christmas. Kris Kringle. Sometimes even Uncle Walter. Most are extensions of some historic religious figure infused with an ethnic quality depending on the country of origin.

So early images of Santa Claus are almost exactly like that of a Cardinal -- wearing red, of course -- or, depending on the culture, nearly Obi-Wan-ish, in full robes. In keeping with the tradition of a Middle Ages cleric or muse, our early Santa was sometimes a ZZ Top wannabe as well.

Neither of our Thanksgiving founders, the Pilgrims and the native Indians, celebrated Christmas. The former had bi-weekly marathon prayer sessions and had no need for yet another day of “celebration”. The latter had their own deities and reveled in nature.

The task of introducing Christmas into the melting pot culture that was to become America was left to the 17th Century Dutch in New Amsterdam, the forerunner of New York City. They carried the tradition of Sant Niklaas to the Americas in images that took various forms as shown below. Gradually, slowly, that image evolved and merged.


Santa3.pngWashington Irving, best known today as the author of Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was the first to attempt to define what Santa looked like. In 1809, clearly unable to think of a shorter title and lacking an editor, came up with Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New York from the Beginning of the New World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, which would stay in print for over 20 years. He described Saint Nicholas as able to leap over thatched bungalows’ rooftops in a single bound and dropping presents for children down chimneys with an accuracy that LeBron James would love to have on the basketball court, while somehow stuffing stockings nailed to fireplaces.

Visually, Irving also made a bold fashion statement by exchanging the traditional flowing Episcopal robes for the standard Dutch outfit of the day as shown below -- a broad-rimmed hat, a long pair of trunk hose, and a large pipe.

He singlehandedly transformed the pious Nicholas into a jolly, elfish, shopkeeper, sporting a backpack, and distributing gifts from an air-borne wagon: “laying his finger beside his nose, gave a significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.”

Not too long after that, the Reverend Clement Clarke Moore, in 1823, taking his cues from Irving instead of his Bible, wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas.

This was the first recorded mention of a sled being pulled by flying reindeer. Moore was also the first, apparently, to recognize that its freakin’ *cold* in late December and that sliding down all those chimneys is not a very sanitary practice: He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.

The good Reverend also did much to establish our northern friend as a bearded, pipe-smoking mischievous sort:
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;


But, more than anything else, he changed St. Nicholas’ previously svelte appearance to a candidate for the title of World’s Biggest Loser that we picture today:
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
By the 1860’s, even our jolly old soul’s name had evolved from the Dutch Sant Niklass to Sinter Klass to the now familiar Santa Claus. And he was now ready for the next step, thanks to artist Thomas Nast. Nast is also known as the man also responsible for the iconic Mule and Elephant representations for the Democratic and Republican parties. From 1862 to 1884, he would do 30 images of the politically – and now religiously – independent Santa, primarily for the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly.

Nast used his imagination and gave Santa a long telescope for both navigation by the stars and keeping a watchful on precocious little tykes; a record book (presumably a naughty-nice list), and – very importantly – depicted him with a North Pole sign behind him -- which didn’t please the South during these Civil War years! He also firmly associated him with a toy workshop and Christmas trees.

All of Nast’s Harper’s drawings were in black and white, but finally publishers The McLoughlin Brothers asked him for a series in color. Nast firmly established Santa’s costume as red – harkening back to his clerical origins – with white fur trim, a nod to Moore’s description, and with a black belt.

In 1885, Louis Prang did much to reinforce Nast’s image in widely circulated Christmas card illustrations. By the 1920's the red suit becomes standardized.

Katherine Lee Bates, a songwriter from Massachusetts, decided that it was too lonely for Santa up at the North Pole, and that he was likely a slob, so she created Mrs. Claus in 1889 in her poem, Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, violating sainthood celibacy restrictions. There had been oblique references to women in Santa’s life dating back to 1862, but Bates’ description cemented her existence in the public’s mind. Since then, Mrs. Claus has been generally depicted, like Santa, as heavy-set, kindly, white-haired and elderly female baking cookies somewhere in the background. She sometimes assists in toy production, and oversees Santa's elves.

In the 1930’s, the Coca-Cola Company wanted to include Santa as an advertising symbol for their product and commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to firmly establish Santa’s image as we know it today. Santa’s features had oftentimes been presented as almost elfish, with a long nose, but Sundblom gave him rosy cheeks and a cherub appearance.

Other imaginative features continue to be added to the Santa Claus mythos through popular medium, including songs , and bringing him further and further from his religious roots. Chief among these are the establishment of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as the 9th of Santa’s trusty team of reindeer. Rudolph was the 1939 creation of Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward for a series of Christmas giveaways, but became so popular that May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, in 1948, first recorded by crooner Harry Brannon before Gene Autry established it as his signature song a year later.

Only time will tell if there’s further evolution; but if so, the earlier cited Emsh has given us seven other Space Age images of our four-armed Santa from 1951-1959 at Galaxy Magazine, at least one which features an alien counterpart from another planet:

Who knows? If NASA discovers life elsewhere, this multi-limbed, blue, bug-eyed representative from the North Star may become our next Christmas icon.