Inventing Santa Claus

nast-santa

Silk’s post #15 —  The Christmas season does something crazy to the calendar. First of all, the days seem to rush up at you like a herd of galloping reindeer. Then they whirl by in a cloud of wrapping paper bits, carols, a cacaphony of greetings and conversations, and of course the intoxicating aromas of damn-the-calories holiday meals. Suddenly the season is gone and the needles are falling off the tree at the rate of a mountain cloudburst.

Then comes the clean up, which seems to take place in slow motion, unless you’re lucky enough to be in a hurry to get somewhere sunny like Hawaii, or snowy like Whistler.

The other thing that happens to the calendar is that the dates of the month become completely dominant … Christmas Eve on the 24th, Christmas Day on the 25th, New Year’s Eve on the 31st, New Year’s Day on January 1st (and all the other seasonal celebration dates that I can’t keep track of) … but the days of the week become completely eclipsed. For instance, for a working person today’s main feature would be that it’s a Monday. But this week, Monday means nothing and Christmas Eve means everything.

Maybe you can already tell where I’m going with this. I just realized this is Monday at about lunchtime, and Monday is my day to post on the blog. Uh oh.

So in keeping with the spirit of the season (and trying not to be grinch), I thought it would be jolly to explore Christmas from a fiction perspective. There have been many – probably hundreds – of enduring and mostly heartwarming stories written about the Christmas season, of course. In deference to those who take a religious view of Christmas, I won’t put the lovely Nativity story on the “fiction” list, but just by saying that, I’m sure I’ve given away my own perspective on this beautiful and powerful tale.

My own three favourites are literary traditions, written by The Greats: A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas; Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; and The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry.

But what’s interesting is how many of the Christmas stories, traditions and myths that have become staples of our modern culture have bizarrely mixed origins, with bits of folklore, religion, commerce and mass entertainment all thrown into the pot together. What has resulted over time is perhaps the ultimate, collaborative character development project ever.

I’m speaking, of course, of Santa Claus. The original Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas were Christian religious figures, but in the merging of Christianity and pagan religions back in the olden days, the Norse god Odin (among others) got thrown into the character stew. Over time, a host of folkloric figures including Father Christmas, got written into the Santa Claus role, and eventually the inevitable happened. Santa, and his shifting story, got commercialized.

The Santa Claus we know today is really a creation of commercial artist Haddon Sundbloom, whose rosy-cheeked version of Santa was employed to sell Coca Cola in the 1930s. This put a modern spin on the jolly, pudgy 19th century Santa Claus character drawn by cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly (image above). For many years, Santa Claus has been a seasonal department store employee. His original starring role in Santa Claus parades began way back in 1890, and has been fully commercialized by Macy’s in New York (who also cleverly helped establish the Christmas shopping season by scheduling Santa’s call-to-action appearance at its own Thanksgiving Day Parade). Santa’s career has now expanded to include personal appearances at shopping malls across the continent, accompanied by his own personal commercial photographer.

I was also surprised to learn that the eight tiny reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh through the sky were more or less invented by an American reindeer breeder who was trying to establish reindeer herds for commercial meat production in Alaska. Seriously. This notion of sled-pulling reindeer was later popularized in the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (most know it as “The Night Before Christmas” after its first line), by Clement Clarke Moore. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was added to the team by Robert May in 1939 for the Montgomery Ward department store, who commissioned the creation of the character for a Christmas colouring book. Of course, it was Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, who made Rudolph truly famous in his 1949 recording.

This was a follow up to Cowboy Gene’s other famous Christmas song, “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)”, first recorded in 1947. Interestingly, the lyrics to this song nearly bring Santa Claus full circle, back to being a religious figure (or maybe a modern liberal, depending on how you interpret the third line) with this verse:

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus
Right Down Santa Claus Lane
He doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor
He loves you just the same
Santa Claus knows we’re all God’s children
That makes everything right
So fill your hearts with Christmas cheer
‘Cause Santa Claus comes tonight!

In that spirit, I will sign off with best wishes for a merry season, whatever you may be celebrating. I hope that, just for a minute before you go to sleep tonight, you find it in your heart to still believe in Santa Claus. I will.

3 thoughts on “Inventing Santa Claus

  1. You might also be interested to know that one of Santa Claus’s progenitors, St. Nicholas, got thrown out of the Nicene Council in 325 AD, for allegedly punching Arianius in the nose during the Arian debates (one of the reasons for the council). So you really gotta watch who’s naughty and nice – you may end up with not only black coal in your stocking, but a couple of black eyes, too!

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