This is an extended version of an article that I wrote for Foghorn, the journal of the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation, of which I am a member. The article was originally directed at a British readership.
The Truth About Santa Claus.
Do you remember when you first suspected that Santa didn’t exist? When it first began to dawn on you that your parents had been telling you fibs concerning the nature of the portly gent in the red outfit – when you first suspected that he was nothing more than a myth (although you didn’t know what a myth was at the time)? In some quarters there’s quite a heated debate going on as to whether or not it’s a good idea for responsible adults to deceive their credulous and innocent children into believing in Santa in the first place. Some people see the peddling of the myth as a betrayal of trust: something approaching psychological child abuse. Just think of the damage that’s caused to children when they discover that the parents whom they worship are liars. Me, I encourage this duplicity. I see the lie as an important life lesson. The lesson is: never trust anyone ever again, even when those people think that they have your best interests at heart. I’ve never been disappointed since. It was the best gift that my parents ever gave me. The gift of realizing the existence of deception and trickery. Some people think that it’s wrong to tell children about Santa because it’s a crime against rationality. I’ve heard that Richard Dawkins, in his very highly principled but possibly misguided way, actually sat his young daughter down one day and explained to her that there was no Santa. “How could he get round all of those chimneys in ONE night?” he asked her, appealing to her rationality. She should have answered “Holes in the space-time continuum, stupid!” but I suspect that he deliberately asked the question when she was too young to be capable of formulating a convincing riposte (just in case she’d inherited his genes for confrontational argumentativeness).
Okay, so Santa may be fictitious, but where’s the problem in that? After all, life’s more interesting when it’s embellished with a few larger than life fictional characters. (I’ve just spent half an hour on the phone to a friend discussing the unusual personality traits of a completely fictional television character (Dexter, the nice serial killer) with a friend, so I know that this to be true.)
Although Santa doesn’t exist, the facts behind the fictional character are very interesting. Fact number one: Santa Claus is not the same person as Father Christmas! The exact origins of Father Christmas (as opposed to Santa) are lost in time: he was probably a pagan personification of midwinter, who put in an appearance at the solstice (December 23rd), and indeed may well have been one and the same personification as the old bearded man with the scythe and hour-glass, Father Time, who turns up at New Year, a week or so after Christmas is over (once he’s slept off the sherry and mince pies). Father Christmas was a central character in Britain’s seasonal festivities long before Santa Claus joined in the celebrations. Santa didn’t really participate in the fun until the nineteenth century. However, once Santa put in an appearance he soon pushed the original Father Christmas into the background. Why? Because Santa was an American. Or to be more precise, an American of Turkish ancestry. The original Santa Claus was Nicholas, a 4th century bishop of Myra in Turkey, who reputedly handed out gifts to children. (Very suspicious: if he were around nowadays there’d be a very heavy police file somewhere with his name on it. And possibly an electronic tag around his ankle. Beware Turks bearing gifts.) The bishop remained relatively obscure for fifteen hundred years or more (although his admirers promoted him to sainthood) until his star suddenly rose in the nineteenth century. St Nicholas entered popular culture in the United States when, in 1809, the novelist Washington Irving (who wrote Rip Van Winkle) penned a satire on the Dutch culture of New York (a city that had a strong Dutch element in its history – so much so that it was originally called New Amsterdam). In his satire he referred to Saint Nicholas by his Dutch name of Santa Claus and portrayed him somewhat like an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. A few years later, 1822, Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at a theology college in New York and the son of the Bishop of New York and his heiress wife (the family were so rich that the college at which Moore taught was built on their own estate), read Irving’s book and published a poem based on the Santa Claus character: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” The poem became a great hit: you may be familiar with it yourself (or at least with its opening lines). It was in this poem that Santa first acquired his reindeer: before this he had to make do, somewhat bizarrely, with an eight-legged flying horse (Or maybe it was just one flying horse in front of another one). At this point the Santa industry went stratospheric. With the poem as inspiration, the illustrator Thomas Nast started to draw the first of what would eventually be more than two thousand illustrations for Harper’s Weekly depicting Santa. Nast’s early depictions of Santa showed a rotund gent of quite serious demeanor, becoming more jovial over the passing years. This Santa was closer to Washington Irving’s version than the usual stern bishop of previous tradition. Nast also gave Santa his headquarters at the North Pole and his army of toiling elves. Here’s Nast’s first depiction of Santa, from Harper’s Weekly of 3rd January 1863 (which also included another, much smaller illustration of Santa by Nast).
Judging by this illustration you may think that Santa’s wearing a rather festive outfit, festooned with Christmas stars – however, if you look at the original drawing (which is too large to be seen clearly on this page, so we’re having to make do with details) you’ll see that he’s sitting beneath a Union flag. The suit – with its starry jacket and striped trousers – represents this flag. If the illustration had been in colour the jacket would have been blue (I bet you assumed that it was red), reflecting the colour of the ground behind the stars on the flag, while the trousers would be red and white stripes. Nast was essentially a political cartoonist – and in political cartoons wrapping a character in a flag to signify their allegiance is quite common. At the time that Nast created the illustration the American civil war was in progress. Nast was on the Unionist side. The puppet in Santa’s hand bears an uncanny resemblance to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate states which the Unionists were fighting.
Nast’s Santa is dressed in the Union flag
It was essentially Nast’s imagination that gave us the Santa that we know today – except, that is, for his red coat with white trim. Santa reputedly wears a red and white outfit because they are the corporate colours of the Coca Cola Corporation, who enlisted Santa to promote their fizzy drink in the 1930s. The Coke ads were created by an American commercial artist of Swedish ancestry, Haddon Sundblom, who modelled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerfully rotund features. So it is that Santa Claus doesn’t actually come from the North Pole but from New York city, and he doesn’t date from the birth of Christianity two thousand years ago but from the early days of capitalism in the nineteenth century. So much for tradition.
It’s quite incredible that a tradition that’s only a few hundred years old can have such a feel of timelessness about it, and it does make you question the authenticity of traditions in general. It makes me suspect that it’s the feel of tradition that people are attracted to rather than the legitimacy of the tradition itself.
One more point. Santa Claus is a myth, as the potted history above attests – but some of that history contains elements of myth itself (just as history in general does). I think that, whenever it comes to history, it’s a safe bet that if you’re ever told that a particular person was the first person to do something or think of something, then you’ve been told wrong. So, for instance, it’s quite easy to speculate that Washington Irving wasn’t the first person to write about Santa Claus – he may have only been the first successful writer to write about him. Perhaps an earlier, more obscure writer wrote about Santa and then dropped out of history when no one bought his books (apart from Washington Irving?). This, I stress, is a speculation that I’ve just devised for the purposes of illustration, but there is actually a degree of real speculation about who wrote “Twas the night before Christmas” There’s a theory that it was in fact written by one Henry Livingston, an obscure New York poet of Dutch ancestry. Suspicion about the authorship is aroused because the poem is wildly out of character for Clement Moore, its presumed author, who was a stern and harshly moralistic Bible scholar (as opposed to Livingston, who was a witty, easy-going and good-natured individual). What’s more, the poem was originally published anonymously, and Moore only claimed authorship after many years (and after Livingston’s death), explaining that he’d wanted to be anonymous because the poem was so much lighter than his usual serious work. This story may be true, but it also has something of the feel of a myth that has been generated in order to debunk the accepted version of what happened. So who knows.
Here’s a similar story concerning the Coca Cola connection. Firstly, let’s get it clear that Coca Cola didn’t actually invent the red-suited version of Santa Claus. Santa was sometimes depicted in red suits by Nash long before the Coke link, but it was Coke who set his suit in stone, so to speak, due to the effectiveness of its Christmas advertising campaigns. However, I was once told by a friend that Santa didn’t wear a red suit because of the Coke adverts at all – that it was indeed a myth that this was the reason. The truth was that Santa’s suit was actually based on the colours of the red and white spotted fungus, fly agaric. This fungus has hallucinatory properties when eaten, linking it to the fact that Santa’s reindeer have the power of flight (if only symbolically). Now, my friend wasn’t very keen on Coca Cola (it being the product of an evil capitalist multinational), but was keen on the dubious pleasures of psychotropic substances, so I deduce that his liking for the toadstool story trumped the Coke story purely as a matter of personal preference. People pick the myths that they feel happiest with.
The knowledge that Santa is actually American and that the way that he’s depicted is as prone to cultural modification as anything else in society has given me an idea though. In a spirit of optimism for the forthcoming US presidency I intend to draw my Christmas cards this year with a Santa who’s black. Okay, okay – mixed race.