I’ve known Santa for some time and he hasn’t changed a bit…
Everyone knows that Santa is a plump, jolly fellow with a long white beard. It’s common knowledge that he circles the globe every Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer. You get bonus points at Christmas trivia contests if you can name them all. Stomping on your roof and the jiggling of bells indicates that Santa has arrived. Hopefully you have a chimney for him to climb down—there are various explanations of how he enters homes that are lacking in that department. Of course, his suit is red. Hasn’t that always been the case? Well, actually, no. Father Christmas, one of his predecessors, usually wore green. The historical Saint Nicholas, most likely the inspiration for Santa Claus, probably wore a Grecian toga. That good saint went through periods of favor and disfavor, taking a major hit during the English Reformation, and later in Puritan America. However, Colonial Germans in Pennsylvania kept the feast of St. Nicholas, and several later accounts have St. Nicholas visiting New York Dutch on New Year’s Eve. New Year gift giving had become the English custom in 1558 and this English custom lasted in New York until 1847). “
Washington Irving published the satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York in 1809 in which he made numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character who smoked a clay pipe. Then, in 1821, The Children’s Friend, was published. The first lithographed book printed in America, it contained an anonymous poem in which “Sante Claus” arrived from the North Pole in a sleigh pulled by one flying reindeer. This Sante Claus rewarded good behavior with books and safe toys (no toy guns or sabers), and left a birchen rod with which parents were instructed to punish the naughty. It was S. Claus’ first appearance on Christmas Eve, rather that December 6th. The seeds of Christmas present were planted, and sprouted into full bloom with the publication of A Visit From St. Nicholas in 1823. The poem is now better known as The Night Before Christmas.
Clement Clark Moore Henry Livingston, Jr.
The poem was first published anonymously and later claimed by Clement Clark Moore, a professor of biblical languages at New York’s Episcopal General Theological Seminary. However, in 1859, 36 years after the poem first appeared in print, the children of Henry Livingston, Jr. came forward and asserted that the poem was actually written by their father around 1807. They claimed to remember him reading the poem to them as children. There has been extensive literary research on both claims and opinions are divided. However, opinion seems to be tipping toward Livingston.
Regardless of who wrote the poem, the effect is the same. The Night Before Christmas has solidified the secular image of St. Nicholas, (AKA Santa Claus) as a jolly old elf who flies through the air every Christmas Eve dispensing gifts to good little children all over the world. The image was reinforced by political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, in 1881 and continues to be celebrated today through song, television, children’s books, movies, and advertising (think Coca Cola). Santa still makes my heart swell when he makes his first magical appearance of the Christmas season at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he’s looking good!