The figure of Father Christmas (Santa Claus) is based on the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas (270-310AD), who became one of the youngest bishops ever at age 17. At age 30 he became the Bishop of Myra, a port town on the Mediterranean Sea, that is part of modern-day Turkey. He hailed from a rich home and became well known for supporting the needy. He would often be seen, clad in red and white bishop’s robes and riding on a donkey, handing out gifts to children.
During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Martin Luther tried to stop the venerating of saints and the feast of Saint Nicholas was abolished in some European countries. The gift giver took on other names: in Germany, he became Der Weinachtsmann (“Christmas Man”), Pre Nol in France, Father Christmas in Britain and the colonies, and many other names.
Santa Claus in New York
The Dutch, under Peter Stuyvesant, founded New York – named New Amsterdam under the Dutch and renamed when the British took over the colony – and brought with them the celebrations of Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus is the American pronunciation of Sinterklaas.
As early as 1773 “St. A. Claus” was mentioned in the American press. In 1809, Washington Irving (the author of “Tales from Sleepy Hollow”) wrote about Sinterklaas in his “A History of New York.” Irving described Sinterklaas as a rotund little man in a typical Dutch costume, with knee breeches and a broad-brimmed hat, who traveled on horseback on the Eve of Saint Nicholas. In 1822, Clement Clark Moore, a poet and professor of theology, published the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (also known as “The Night Before Christmas”). Moore’s Santa is a jolly old elf who flies around in a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. Moore even named the reindeer by the names we know them today, and the method by which Santa returns up the chimney.
Thomas Nast, the illustrator and caricaturist who created the donkey and elephant images to depict the US Democratic and Republican parties, contributed his own vision of Santa for Harper’s Weekly magazine from 1860 until the late 1880s. Nast depicted Santa in a red, fur-trimmed suit and a wide leather belt. Each year he added more details to his version of the Santa legend, including the home-workshop at the North Pole and the Naughty & Nice list.
Santa Claus in the North Pole
In 1885, Nast sketched two children looking at a map of the world and tracing Santa’s journey from the North Pole to the United States. The following year, the American writer, George P. Webster, took up this idea, explaining that Santa’s toy factory and “his house, during the long summer months, was hidden in the ice and snow of the North Pole.”
In 1931 Haddon Sundblom presented Santa as a plump human rather than an elf, with a jovial face and big beard in a Coca-Cola advertisement. (Coca-Cola was a client of Sundblom’s advertising agency from 1924 to until his death in 1976.) Today, it is Sundblom’s Santa that slips down chimneys around the world.
Santa’s address discovered
In 1925, it was discovered that there are no reindeer at the North Pole. There are, however, lots of reindeer in Lapland, Finland. In 1927, the great secret of Santa’s address was revealed by Markus Rautio (“Uncle Markus”) who compered the popular “Children’s hour” on Finnish public radio. He declared that Father Christmas lives on Lapland’s Korvatunturi Mountain.
Korvatunturi – literally “Mount Ear” is in the Savukoski county, Lapland, Finland, on the Finnish-Russian border. At 500 m (1,640 ft) high, it actually is only a big hill. But its three summits points to the answer the children of the world had been asking for years: “Yes, there really is a Father Christmas (Santa Claus).” And his official Post Office is in the town of Napapiiri, near Rovaniemi, near the Korvatunturi mountain. The mountain itself is out of bounds to people.
The figure of Father Christmas (Santa Claus) that we know today was introduced by artist Haddon Sundblom in advertisements for the Coca-Cola Company. In affect, the Coca-Cola Company has, over the decades, brought joy to millions of children around the world. A truly remarkable feat.
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