Folklore: Santa Clause

As writers like Nissenbaum have pointed out, the celebration part of Christmas is a 19th/20th century creation. The Puritans associated Christmas with high Anglicanism and paganism (or rather, they associated anything high Anglican with paganism). Even the Victorians, much to my dismay, were not as Christmas-oriented as they are often portrayed. Yes, Queen Victoria introduced German customs into the holiday, but the Nutcracker image of a Victorian Christmas is, according to my sources, an image of the time period rather than the reality.

In any case, the Santa Clause image appeared in America in the 19th century but didn't take off until the 20th. Washington Irving used this image in this fiction, and Clement C. Moore--a friend of Irving's--practically invented the standard description with "A Visit From Saint Nicholas." In Moore's poem, Santa has a "broad face and a little round belly/That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly/He was chubby and plump." He also smokes. Moore additionally named Santa's reindeer (although Rudolf wasn't added until 1920).

Despite Irving and Moore, the man who really popularized the Santa Clause image in America was Thomas Nast, a German-born illustrator. (By the way, both Irving and Moore also have German, or rather Dutch connections. As you can see below, there are distinct differences between the British or Celtic Father Christmas and the German Father Christmas.) Nast created his illustrations for Harper's Weekly (amongst other magazines) between 1860 to 1890. As well as Santa Clause, Nast is responsible for the donkey and the elephant as Democrat and Republican symbols; Nast is definitely an example of "high" or at least medium culture seeping into the lore of a nation. Rather impressive influence for one guy!

The Nast/Moore/American image of Santa is different from British versions: for a comparison, check out Lewis' description of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and see the images below. However, like Nast and unlike Moore, Lewis makes no overt attempt to associate Father Christmas with St. Nicholas. The connection has pretty much disappeared these days although it remains in books and on blogs explaining the origin of Christmas symbols. Unlike the Thanksgiving-Mayflower story, there would probably not be a Santa without a St. Nicholas first, but Santa, in this day and age, has gained his own image and persona.

There are many folk stories and performances surrounding Santa, the most prevalent being that children should be allowed to believe in Santa as long as possible. Pretending Santa exists is a deliberate, hmmm, fib that kind parents allow their children to believe for the sake of the holiday.

And I sort of see it. Except when I don't. Believing in Santa, at least for me, wasn't exactly the same as believing in, say, aliens. (Aliens might be out there.) I asked my mom if Santa was real when I was about five. Some kids at the bus stop had told me he wasn't. I already knew the answer, so when she reluctantly said, "No," I didn't have a fit and start crying. I went, "Oh, okay."

On the other hand, it would have been nice if I could have believed some jolly, rich, old uncle was paying for the gifts under the Christmas tree. I was the kind of kid who felt guilty about everything (and I mean, everything) and naturally, the money my parents spent on my gifts got added to the list.

On the other other hand, I can't imagine pushing the idea of Santa Clause very hard. People in my childhood household talked about Santa, we selected gifts for our Santa lists from the Sears Roebuck catalog, and I put out milk and cookies (although that was really more of a joke), but my parents never presented Santa as an actual possibility. "Santa" always seemed to be said in inverted commas. Even before my fifth year, I never believed in a North Pole hide-out or reindeer or a guy sliding down the chimney. I didn't not believe. I just didn't have any reason to believe (other than the guilt thing).

Do kids believe? Or do they really know, in their heart of hearts, that Santa is Mum & Dad? Do parents still spin elaborate tales about Santa's time traveling abilities? Or has Santa become an image and only an image: have your picture taken with the red-coated symbol?

Literary/Popular Appearances: Clement C. Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas" naturally. Grinch in How The Grinch Stole Christmas wears the traditional Santa Clause outfit. The awesome Bones' episode "The Santa in the Slush" uses multiple red-coated Santas, and there's a very funny Due South episode where a number of Santas, reindeer, and Elvises ("I said elves, you fools! ELVES!") wander around the police station.

On a far more literary note, Tolkien wrote and illustrated Letters to Father Christmas. Tolkien's Father Christmas (to the left) is more German than British/ Celtic (to the right). There's also the hilarious William Dean Howells' story "Christmas Every Day," although the main character there is a Christmas Fairy rather than Santa Clause. And I mustn't forget the famous editorial: "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Clause" by Francis Pharcellus Church.

Whatever the image--symbolic or decorative--Santa adds a lot to the festivities!



Dan said...

Santa was a reality TV show character before TV was invented.

I cringe when spiritual truths are associated with Santa but I'm a softy when it comes to buying the notion that a jolly fat guy in a red suit can deliver cool gifts throughout the world, all on a single night. And that's true when I'm the one doing the buying!

mike c said...

I've been pondering "A visit from st. nick" again lately, and I saw something I never really realized before... the narrator describes the sleigh as "miniature" and the reindeer and "tiny," he also refers to st. nick as small, and an "elf."

It may just be me, but it seems as the the narrator was trying to describe a character who was a traditional elf... very small. There is no wording in the poem to describe St. nick and reindeer as ordinary size, other than the narrator's ability to hear the reindeer on the roof.

I don't know... I can't find anything to back up my interpretation... what do you think?

Kate Woodbury said...

I think you're right, Mike! In fact, the image in Moore's poem reminds me of the gnomes in Huygen's book. The gnomes are Scandinavian or Dutch (rather than English).

I was able to discover one 1912 version with a gnome-size Santa (illustrator, Jesse Willcox Smith). On the one hand, the prevalence of the large Santa image shows the power of folklore. On the other hand, my reaction is, "Geez, people, be a little more creative!"

And when it comes to sliding down chimneys, a gnome--rather than, say, Tim Allen--makes a lot more sense!

Anonymous said...

I believed in Santa Claus long after the usual age of disbelief. I believed because I wanted to. This wasn't belief in a department store Santa (rare in my childhood at the end of the Great Depression) or the Santa in the annual Christmas parade. They were obviously just someone dressed up in a costume. I believed in the real Santa--the bearded little man in a red suit who climbed through our window (we didn't have a fireplace) and left gifts.

I loved Christmas and this part of Christmas. I "knew" the truth even before my girlfriend told me that there was no Santa. But I believed anyway. I can remember hearing my older brother saying that Jesus was really born in April. I had a vivid dream that night that Santa couldn't come because there was no snow on which the sleigh could travel.

As I grew older I came to love the nativity story and was happy to have Jesus born in the spring. This belief was never confused with Santa. But when I first read The Polar Express I knew I had met a fellow Santa believer.