Purpose of this Blog...

You may have noticed that not all books are equal in capturing children's imaginations and in cultivating those innocent, tender souls. My goal is to help you find the ones that do!
(Painting by Mary Cassatt: "Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren" -1888)

Saturday, December 3, 2011


The Christmas traditions we enjoy today in the U.S. are a result of the blending together of the many cultures that are represented in this "great big melting pot".  This is perhaps most evident in the man we Americans call Santa.

"Santa Claus" has become a secularized amalgamation of religious traditions about Saint Nicholas handed down from Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Germany. In fact, his yearly arrival down the chimney to fill stockings has its root in the ancient story of Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra (now Demre in modern day Turkey), who died on December 6, in 343 A.D.

How did he morph into the "Jolly Old Elf" children love, dressed in red and wearing shiny black boots?  The timeline below may help you with the answer...

A Timeline: the American evolution of Saint Nicholas into "Santa Claus"...

1600's: The Puritans made it illegal to mention Saint Nicholas' name. People were not allowed to exchange gifts, light a candle, or sing Christmas carols.
17th century: Dutch immigrants brought with them the legend of Sinterklaas.

1773: Santa first appeared in the media as St. A Claus.

1804: The New York Historical Society was founded with St. Nicholas as its patron saint. Its members engaged in the Dutch practice of gift-giving on Christmas Day.

1809: Washington Irving, writing under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, included Saint Nicholas in his book "A History of New York." Nicholas is described as riding into town on a horse. (This was not the saintly bishop, but instead an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.)

1812: Irving, revised his book to include Nicholas riding over the trees in a wagon.

1821:  Editor William Gilley printed the first lithographed book in America, Childrens Friend, with a poem about a "Santeclaus", a visitor from the North. He was dressed in fur and driving a sleigh drawn by a single flying reindeer. This didactic poem had Santeclaus arriving on Christmas Eve, as opposed to December 6th, coming to reward the good children and punish the bad.

1822: Dentist Clement Clarke Moore is believed by many to have written a poem "An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas," which became better known as "The Night before Christmas." Santa Claus is portrayed as an elf with a miniature sleigh equipped with eight reindeer which are named in the poem as Blitzem, Comet, Cupid, Dancer, Dasher, Donder, Prancer, and Vixen. Others attribute the poem to a contemporary, Henry Livingston, Jr. Two have since been renamed Donner and Blitzen.

1841: J.W. Parkinson, a Philadelphia merchant, hired a man to dress up in a "Criscringle" outfit and climb the chimney of his store.

1863: Illustrator Thomas Nast created images of Santa for the Christmas editions of Harper's Magazine. These continued through the 1890's.

1860s: President Abraham Lincoln asked Nast to create a drawing of Santa with some Union soldiers. This image of Santa supporting the enemy had a demoralizing influence on the Confederate army -- an early example of psychological warfare.

1897: Francis P Church, Editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial in response to a letter from an eight year-old girl, Virginia O'Hanlon. She had written the paper asking whether there really was a Santa Claus. It has become known as the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" letter.

Yew York, circa 1900

1920's: The image of Santa had been standardized to portray a bearded, over-weight, jolly man dressed in a red suit with white trim.

1931: Haddon Sundblom, illustrator for The Coca-Cola ™ company drew a series of Santa images in their Christmas advertisements until 1964. The company holds the trademark for the Coca-Cola Santa design. Christmas ads including Santa continue to the present day.

1939: Copywriter Robert L. May of the Montgomery Ward Company created a poem about Rudolph, the ninth reindeer. May had been "often taunted as a child for being shy, small and slight." He created an ostracized reindeer with a shiny red nose who became a hero one foggy Christmas eve. Santa was part-way through deliveries when the visibility started to degenerate. Santa added Rudolph to his team of reindeer to help illuminate the path. A copy of the poem was given free to Montgomery Ward customers.

1949: Johnny Marks wrote the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Rudolph was relocated to the North Pole where he was initially rejected by the other reindeer who wouldn't let him play in their reindeer games because of his strange looking nose. The song was recorded by Gene Autry and became his all-time best seller. Next to "White Christmas" it is the most popular song of all time.

1993: An urban folk tale began to circulate about a Japanese department store displaying a life-sized Santa Claus being crucified on a cross. It never happened.

1997: Artist Robert Cenedella drew a painting of a crucified Santa Claus. It was displayed in the window of the New York's Art Students League and received intense criticism from some religious groups. His drawing was a protest. He attempted to show how Santa Claus had replaced Jesus Christ as the most important personality at Christmas time.
[research and source notes]

Well, with that 1997 entry, Robert Cenedella seems to share the same point of view as the Puritans in the 1600s, so we're back to where we started.  I agree that we need to keep Christ in "Christ-mas", but I also think it's imperative that we don't forget the story of the real St. Nicholas, an early Christian who loved to help the poor.  Otherwise, we just end up with "Santa"... an old man in a red suit.
"You'll shoot your eye out, kid!" 
(Click HERE to read my past posts about St. Nicholas.)


  1. Interesting. Today's designers and artists are being advised to portray Santa with a more slender shape and no red cheeks!

  2. So sad how St. Nicholas has morphed into something that helps people with their worldly agenda... Thank you for this history! I wish you a lovely St. Nicholas day tomorrow. I'm going with a friend to the Greek church in the morning!