Carole Owens: Santa's evolution over the centuries


STOCKBRIDGE >> Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus, but it has not always been so. Oh yes there was a St Nicholas and Father Christmas, but the jolly man who makes a list and flies around on Christmas Eve delivering presents to worthy children is a 19th century invention.

There was a Father Christmas in the 1500s. During the reign of Henry VIII he was a large man in scarlet fur-lined robes. He was filled with good cheer, not to mention food and wine. Think of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

Saint Nicholas was a 14th century figure famous for giving gifts to the poor. However, our Santa was ushered in along with other things we take for granted in the 19th century: the Christmas tree, stockings "hung on the chimney with care" and "tiny reindeer."

It was 1821 and a slim volume "For Little Ones five to twelve" contained a poem called "Old Santeclaus." The unknown author described a reindeer sleigh and a jolly little fellow bringing presents to children. It read in part:

"Old Santeclaus with much delight

His reindeer drives this frosty night,

O'er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,

To bring his yearly gifts to you

The steady friend of virtuous youth,"

The poem was eventually credited to Clement Clark Moore; probably after he published "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas") in the Troy Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823.

Moore invented our modern Santa, ascribing to the old man his modern attributes. Santa rode in a sleigh which landed on rooftops; he entered via the chimney with a bag full of toys. Santa was "a right jolly old elf" with "a little round belly" that "shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly." Santa and his sleigh were miniature and his eight tiny reindeer were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen,Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem.

By 1853, the stockings were hung on the chimney and Santa was a regular fixture but his name varied. In a magazine article, he was described as a "fabulous personage" alternately called Krishkinkle, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus.

Exactly when Santa evolved from a round-bellied elf to a full-sized, heavyset person is less certain, but an illustration by Thomas Nast in a Jan. 3, 1863 Harper's Bazaar depicts Santa in the way that would be replicated from then on. (Nast would later depict Boss Tweed so memorably that it is said his illustrations brought down the Tweed empire.)

Santa's address was not fixed until 1866. Nast is credited with this bit of trivia as well. Harper's Bazaar, Dec. 29,1866, the Nast illustration has the caption: "Santa Claussville, N.P."

In 1869, in "Santa Claus and His Works," a Nast illustration accompanies text by George P. Webster. The text reads, Santa's home is "near the North Pole, in the ice and snow."

By 1870 the fellow in the red suit who lived at the North Pole was a well accepted part of the Christmas story. And everyone knew the lines "He sprang to his sleigh

To his team gave a whistle

And they all flew away like the down of a thistle

But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight

Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night."

Happy holidays

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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