Why Rich New Yorkers Created Santa Claus

Why Rich New Yorkers Created Santa Claus


When you think about iconic holiday characters, the first that comes to mind
is probably Santa Claus. The jolly old man known for his generosity and cheery demeanor dominates the media during the holiday season, appearing in everything from movies… “Santa’s coming to town.” “Santa, oh my god.” …to advertisements. “Is it cold in Santa Fe,
Raleigh, Cleveland tonight?” And it’s easy to see why. Santa sells. And we trust what he’s selling. But the real-life Santa
Claus doesn’t quite resemble the brand influencer of today. He was a poor monk in modest robes, known for his religious zeal and praised for his magnificent miracles. So how did he evolve so drastically? It’s all thanks to a
handful of rich New Yorkers and two short poems. The tale of St. Nicholas
is one that has spread across continents and
cultures since the beginning of the third century. Since his story was passed
through oral tradition, it’s often impossible to
separate fact from fiction when it comes to his actual legacy. It is said that he began
his life as a Christian monk on the Mediterranean coast of Patara, in what is now known as Turkey. From early on, he gave
up everything he had and traveled the countryside
helping the sick and poor. He was notorious for his religious zeal and his fervent defense of the church during a time when Christians
were heavily persecuted for their beliefs. But he is also credited with a number of fantastical miracles. In one story, he gave a
poor father bags of gold to pay for his three
daughters’ wedding dowries to prevent them from
turning to prostitution. And in another story, he
revived three children who were murdered by a butcher and hidden in pickling barrels. These terrific feats
concerning his generosity and his care for children are
what made St. Nicholas popular among the common people. And when he died, he
became a beloved saint and was given a holiday to
celebrate his benevolence. As his fame spread across Europe, his tale was mixed with local folktales of flying chariots and elves. In the Netherlands, St.
Nicholas was rumored to have left chocolate
treats or small gifts in the shoes of good children
and coal or a bag of salt in the shoes of bad children. He was described as a big man
wearing red clerical clothing with white hair and a
long white beard to match. The Dutch called him “Sinter Klaas,” which was a play on the
Dutch name, “Sint Nikolaas.” At the time, St. Nicholas
Day was a holiday completely unrelated to Christmas. In fact, Christmas itself
began as a celebration of the winter solstice,
commemorating the end of the darkest days of winter and welcoming the return
of extended sunlight. Nordic cultures celebrated
Yule from December 21st to the start of January. The Germans celebrated the pagan god Odin. And the Romans celebrated
Saturnalia in honor of the god of agriculture, Saturn. The common thread throughout
winter solstice celebrations is that they were meant
to be for everyone. So they were often raucous
parties fueled by alcohol. But while Christianity was
still a growing movement, church leaders sought to
make the birth of Jesus a holiday as well. They chose December
25th for the celebration in the hopes of piggybacking on existing winter solstice parties. And it worked. As Christianity spread, so
did celebrations of Christmas. But because of their close association with the winter solstice, Christmas parties also
became loud, unruly events. (fire roaring) Fast-forward to 19th-century America. The European colonists
of modern-day New York brought both St. Nicholas
Day and Christmas with them. But not everything was
pleasant in the New World. Christmas was still a
rowdy, drunken street mess. And rampant economic problems, which led to massive class disparity, just added fuel to the fire. The jaded lower classes
who couldn’t find work would riot during wintertime. Eventually, these protests grew so violent that a police task force was
formed to handle dissenters. These riots, paired with alcohol-fueled Christmas celebrations, were distasteful to New York’s very proper upper crust. So this spurred them to make a change. They decided to bring
the Christmas holiday inside the house and make the
focus family and children. And what better way to rebrand a holiday than to give it a face? And what better face for a family holiday than the face of a saint? The first problem was that
St. Nicholas was not quite as popular in America as
he had been in Europe. At least not until the efforts of some of high-society gentlemen, Pintard was the founder of the
New York Historical Society and St. Nicholas’s biggest advocate, and he pushed to make St. Nick
the society’s patron saint. At the same time, the American
author Washington Irving joined Pintard’s society and wrote “Knickerbocker’s History of New York,” a somewhat satirical, yet also historical, account of New York’s beginnings, where he described St.
Nicholas as an “ever-revered” presence who guided early Dutch settlers to colonize New York. Together, Pintard and
Irving helped familiarize the American people with
the persona of St. Nicholas. So, the next step was to reframe him as the face of Christmas. In 1821, an illustrated poem
titled “The Children’s Friend” described a character
known as “Santeclaus,” an obvious play on the
Dutch name “Sinterklaas.” Santeclaus was shown
visiting people’s homes during the night on a flying sled pulled by a single reindeer. And much like in the old Dutch legends, he bestowed small gifts to good children and punishments to naughty children. But what stood out about this story was that Santeclaus didn’t
visit families on December 6th, but rather on Christmas Eve. The following year, an American scholar named Clement Clarke Moore
piggybacked on this idea when he wrote the poem “A
Visit From St. Nicholas.” But you might be more familiar with the poem’s alternate title, “The Night Before Christmas.” In this poem, Moore played with
a slightly different picture of good ol’ St. Nick. Rather than being pulled
by a single reindeer, he was guided by eight. And rather than a thin
man in clerical robes, he became a jolly,
big-bellied man in a fur suit. The stories went viral. St. Nicholas became the main character of the Christmas season. Sixty years later, political
cartoonist Thomas Nast was inspired by these poems
and designed the image of St. Nicholas that’s
pervasive even today. Now we see Santa everywhere. On the street, at the mall, and even on our television
screens at home. He’s become a fundamental
part of the holiday season. But now he’s evolved to be more than just the mascot of Christmas. Since the ’30s, Santa’s
been a brand influencer used to help market products
during the holidays. And ironically, the traits that help Santa sell products today are the same ones that
tied him to Christmas in the first place. The jolly old man is genuine and giving, so when we see him, we trust
him almost without question. He makes us nostalgic for
childhood and helps us remember the best aspects of life, creating an easily
exploitable vulnerability in his audience. Santa sells, and we trust what he’s selling. But despite this drastic
evolution from benevolent monk to corporate shill and the
perhaps not-so-great intentions that spurred the change,
one thing remains true: No matter how Santa changes, he will always exist in our hearts and in our media.

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