Posted in Dolls, Holidays

by Ruby Lane

Whether called St Nicholas, Pelznickle, or Father Christmas, the spirit of happiness through giving is known throughout the world as a sign of the season.

Santa Claus, that “Jolly Old Elf,” adults and children alike often feel we know this legendary man personally but this wasn’t always the case. Christmas itself has roots in many ancient cultural traditions and so does Santa.

Observances of the winter solstice and renewal of life rituals in the dark of winter were prevalent in many cultures. In the 4th century the Christian church designated December 25 as the date for remembering the birth of Christ. Roman, Germanic and Celtic traditions were woven into this new holiday in an effort to offer the spreading religion a feeling of familiarity to the peoples the church hoped to draw in. Aspects of the secular celebrations of the past found new ways of living on and eventually a secular hero for the season was born in the persona of Santa. 

Santa’s earliest roots can be traced to a Catholic Archbishop named Nicholas of Bari who lived from 270 to 342 AD. Becoming the patron saint to many St. Nicholas was well-know for secretly giving gifts to others for the improvement of their lives.

From this humble beginning the idea of St. Nick the benevolent giver of gifts, grew in numerous cultures. In Germany Pelznickle (which means Nicholas in Fur) traveled on Christmas eve bringing nuts, candy and toys to children. In Holland St. Nicholas traveled with his companion Black Peter who kept the list of which children were good and which were bad. The Dutch immigrants who helped colonize America brought this story with them to the new country, referring to St Nicholas as Sinter Klas, which over the years was anglicized into Santa Claus.

Charles Dicken’s Ghost of Christmas Present was modeled on the English vision of Father Christmas with his long robe and wreath of holly in his hair.

German immigrants to America brought their celebration of the Christkindlein with them and again over the years, with influence from immigrants speaking other languages, the name transformed into Kristkingle and eventually to Kris Kringle.

By the 19th century many folk traditions were blending together to become treasured parts of the Christmas holiday. Gifts were given to family members and employees. The Christmas tree became popularized by the British Queen Victoria and gift giving which began as an expression of pious aid to the less fortunate was broadened to include family members.

In 1822 a young professor of Greek and Oriental languages, named Clement C. Moore wrote a poem entitled A Visit From St. Nicholas for the amusement of his children. In this now iconic ode, he described a visit from Santa Claus, creating an image of a kindly elf-like figure who traveled the world in a reindeer-pulled sleigh bringing gifts of joy to children everywhere in the name of Christmas. A relative of Moore’s copied the poem and shared it with a friend who in turn sent it the next year to The Troy Sentinal, which published the piece. Moore’s creation beloved by many, has been in print ever since and created an indelible image of Santa.

Innumerable doll artists have made their versions of Santa over the years. Roy Brindamour of Marblehead, MA made this Santa riding a paper mâché reindeer. 

In 1863, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast was commissioned to create a Christmas illustration for Harpers Weekly. Nast remembering his own childhood fondness for Moore’s poem drew up the illustration of Santa that would set the standard for the American image of Santa into the 20th century. Nast was also the one who gave Santa Claus a North Pole residence.

Nast would illustrate Santa for Harpers Weekly for 20 years. 
In 1890 a Brockton, Massachusetts merchant named James Edgar decided that dressing up as Santa and visiting with customers in his department store might be a good way to promote holiday sales. The embodiment of Santa has become a tradition with many children making an annual visit to see the old gentleman. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1931 another American illustrator named Haddon Sundblom drew a modernized version of Santa as part of an advertising campaign for the Coca-Cola Company. Sundblom who was well known for his art which idealized the image of American life in much the same vein as his contemporary Norman Rockwell did, would continue drawing his vision of Santa for Coke up until 1966.

Coca-Cola advertising featuring Santa is an interesting record of the past 80 years, often incorporating world events into its image. The ads shown here are from (left to right)1931, 1944 and 1964.
This Santa Claus doll, with his highly detailed molded composition head, is said to have been released to coincide with the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street.
Frances and Bernard Ravca are best known for the stockinette dolls they created but this artistic couple also made crepe paper dolls such as this 4.5″ Santa.

In today’s popular culture Santa Claus embodies the spirit of love, joy, and giving making him a shining symbol in the darkest time of the year.

Author – Linda Edward

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