He’s the secular embodiment of Christmas, and no matter how much his image has changed throughout the decades, by how many different names he’s known, or how much his existence is challenged, Santa Claus continues to enchant both young and old.
Santa has his roots in the legend of the historical St. Nicholas, a Greek who became a bishop and was renowned for his gifts and kindness to children before dying in Turkey in A.D. 342. The eve of his feast day, December 6, is still observed in many Western countries by the giving of gifts.
Over the millennia, St. Nick’s story and appearance were recast and reimagined by succeeding generations of writers, artists and composers until he became the good-humored, red-suited, white-bearded, sleigh-riding, giver of Christmas gifts that we all know and love.
In his 1809 book Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving created a pipe-smoking St. Nicholas who delivers presents to good boys and girls (and switches to bad ones) via a flying wagon. St. Nick’s name was also undergoing a transformation during that time, thanks to New York’s Dutch heritage. “Sinterklaas” is the Dutch equivalent for St. Nicholas, which on American tongues soon became “Santa Claus.”
Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” embellished Irving’s tale with its references to a “jolly old elf” who, with the aid of his team of eight reindeer, delivers gifts to children on Christmas Eve. Forty years later, political cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Santa his now-familiar red suit as well as an address—the North Pole.
The Coca-Cola Co. put the finishing touches on the modern depiction of Santa Claus beginning in 1931 when it hired artist Haddon Sundblom to build an ad campaign around him in an effort to enhance their product’s appeal to children.
It worked, and each succeeding generation of American kids have paid an annual visit to a rotund gentleman with a flowing white beard who is outfitted in a velvety red suit and hat trimmed with white fur and accessorized with a wide black belt and tall black boots.
This time of year, you’ll find Santa (or his lookalike helpers) in malls, in Naperville and other downtown business districts, parties, and almost everywhere else Americans gather to celebrate the Christmas season. His enormous popularity has even given rise to a professional class of Santas—men who are trained in the art of creating a believable character, quieting fussy toddlers and parrying the questions of curious kids. In fact, Monarch Landing boasts its very own celebrity who has played receptionist by day and Santa by night.
Believing in Santa Claus is a given for most small children—85 percent of 4-year-olds believe—just as abandoning their belief in him is a rite of passage for older kids. Interestingly, the number of believers has held steady through the decades.
For most of us, Santa is not only a comfortable custom, he’s a reminder of the goodness and generosity that surround us. When kids stop believing in his actual existence, they transfer their belief from the literal to the figurative, developing “the capacity to believe in the unseen,” says anthropologist Cindy Dell Clark of Rutgers University-Camden.
Several years ago, a Seattle mother crafted a response to her own daughter’s questions, explaining the enduring magic that is Santa, regardless of your age or traditions.
“Santa is bigger than any person, and his work has gone on longer than any of us have lived. What he does is simple, but it is powerful. He teaches children how to have belief in something they can’t see or touch,” she wrote. “Santa is love and magic and hope and happiness. I’m on his team, and now you are, too.”
Magic, hope, love, devotion, happiness. If those are the gifts brought by Santa Claus, it’s no wonder his legend lives on and on.