Who “Invented” How Santa Looks?

The legend of Santa Claus actually has its basis in a real person, Saint Nicholas, also known as Nikolaos of Myra. Nicholas was born in the fourth century in what was then known as Asia Minor to a wealthy family. At the time, this was a Greek area that today is known as Turkey. While young, Nicholas’ devout Christian parents both passed away. At this point, Nicholas inherited the family fortune and faced a moral dilemma – what to do with the inheritance. As a devout Christian himself, Nicholas heeded the teachings of the Bible and used his new wealth to give gifts to those in need. This made Nicholas beloved to the people but a threat to the rulers. Therefore he was imprisoned. Ultimately he was released from prison and continued as a bishop. When he died on December 6th, 343, the remains of Nicholas became a relic and were said to produce miracles, including the healing of the sick. Thus, to this day many celebrate Saint Nick’s day on the anniversary of his death by giving gifts to others.

However, it is highly unlikely that Nicholas looked like the jolly old figure we depict him as today. So, the question is, how did he come to be portrayed as a round old man dressed in red who lives at the North Pole? Through the following centuries, celebrating Saint Nicholas day was adored by commoners, even in periods when religious or political leaders tried to repress the holiday tradition. However, the imagery of the Saint still was more along the lines of a bishop than an elf dressed in red driving a sleigh. Eventually, this began to change. Along with his changes in appearance, some began to associate him more with Christmas than his traditional feast day.

Nicholas became less historical and more like the fairy tale over time. In time the idea was brought to America, where he became known as Santa Claus, which is believed to simply be a mispronunciation of his name. With the name change came an image change, too. Popularization of this new Santa generally began in the early 1800s. In 1823 the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” was published (today its generally known as “The Night before Christmas”). In this poem, the idea of a pipe-smoking Santa coming down the chimney was spread to the masses. With the release of this poem, the image of Santa as we see him today was beginning to take shape.

Perhaps the next major influence on the changing appearance of Santa was a famous political cartoonist from the mid and late 1800s, Thomas Nast (Nast is the cartoonist given credit for creating the symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties, the donkey and elephant). Nast began to draw cartoons of Santa as a plump old elf dressed in fur garments and sporting a beard. Oddly enough, he used the imagery of Santa in cartoons promoting the cause of the Union in the Civil War. When the war was over, Nast continued to draw Santa in this method, and over time he began to look even more like the Santa of today.

Finally, in the 1920s, the vision of Santa in a red suit emerged. Magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, and its artist, Norman Rockwell, created a truly American version of Saint Nicholas. This image was soon taken by the Coca Cola Company and made a part of its advertising campaign. After WWII, with the emergence of mass media and consumption, and the dominance of American culture, Santa as we currently know him began to spread to the rest of the world. This American version of Santa is now prevalent in many nations, although some still hold a more traditional view of Saint Nicholas.

So, as you can see, it’s impossible to declare who “invented” Santa, as it was a long process based on an actual historical character in which many contributed to his modern look (and which will may continue to change in the future, especially as the nation becomes more diverse).  At US Patent Services, we’ve changed over time, too. If you haven’t checked out our products lately, click over and see what’s new.