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The 1,800-year evolution of Santa Claus, from skinny medieval saint to WWII propaganda icon

Santa Claus Sugar Plums advertisement by US Confection Co.
By Selina Cheng
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The character of Santa Claus is believed to have originated from the 3rd-century Greek Saint Nicholas, and only emerged as the modern-day Santa after thousands of years. While today’s western image is one of a Caucasian, jolly old fat man wearing a beard and a red suit, some call for black Santas, or Santas with a more ethnically-identifiable images. Archival illustrations unearthed by Public Domain Review remind us that Santa Claus doesn’t always look the way we think he does.

Santa Claus started as little Nicholas, born in 270 AD to a wealthy family in Patara. Once part of Greece, the town today is in Turkey. As a devout Christian, Nicholas used all his inheritance to help the needy, according to the St. Nicholas Center, creating the core identity of Santa as the kind gift-giver. Nicholas grew up to become a bishop. He was persecuted by a Roman emperor and made a saint by the Catholic Church.

His image changed remarkably over the years.


A 13th-century painting of Saint Nicholas, also known as Sint Nikolaas in Dutch, or Sinterklaas, shows him as neither fat nor particularly jolly:

Aleksa Petrov
St. Nicholas “Lipensky” (Russian icon from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod), 1294


He remained a religious image throughout the Middle Ages before fusing with European folkloric characters, like Old Father Christmas of 17th-century England. He was portrayed as a cheerful Christmas figure but wasn’t associated with children, or gifts.

Josiah King
The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas, by Josiah King, 1658


Although some believe Dutch settlers landing on the American east coast brought with them tales of Saint Nicholas, St. Nicholas Center says that the saint wasn’t introduced into the United States until the early 1800s, at a time when New Yorkers were searching for their Dutch roots. St. Nicholas was made the patron saint of the city by the New York Historical Society in 1804, and Washington Irving, a member of the society, wrote about a jolly Saint Nicholas figure in his 1809 book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York. According to the New York Public Library:

Altering the saint’s appearance from the tall, somber, commanding European image, Irving reinvented Saint Nicholas as a short, stout, merry, pipe-smoking Dutchman, dressed in traditional colonial attire.

That might be when Sinterklaas first became the Americanized ”Santa Claus.” From then on, artists more liberally interpreted the look of Santa Claus, sometime as an ordinary but gift-giving old man, while others gave him a more elfish character. Among the latter are works of cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew many Santa illustrations for Harper’s Weekly in the mid-19th century.

NYPL/Dollar Newspaper
Santa Claus as depicted on the Dollar Newspaper of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 25, 1844.
Library of Congress
Kiss Kringle’s Christmas Tree, E. Ferrett & Co., Philadelphia, 1845
Harper's Weekly
Thomas Nast’s illustration “A Christmas Furlough” on a Harper’s weekly in 1863.
NYPL/Harper's Weekly
“Letters from Naughty Children’s Parents,” Harper’s Weekly, December 30, 1871

Then in about 1868, Santa took on a red wardrobe. This seems to be the earliest illustration of Santa Claus wearing a red suit, from the Library of Congress archives:

Santa Claus Sugar Plums advertisement by US Confection Co.

And this illustration of a not-so-jolly Santa with a hooded red robe and plenty of toys, drawn by an unnamed illustrator sometime between 1870 to 1890:

Santa with toys and red hooded cape.
First photographic representation of Santa Claus in the Library of Congress archive, 1895.


Santa Claus images from the beginning of the 20th century look pretty much identical to Santa as we know it:

The Bowen-Merrill Company/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, 1902, by Frank L. Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz.
The beloved Santa Claus on a 1902 Puck magazine cover.
LOC/Detroit Publishing Co.
Santa was spotted on Broadway, New York in 1903.
Santa Claus went to Japan in 1914, according to this illustration by an unnamed artist.

Santa appeared in US WWI propaganda poster in 1918:

Santa Claus appearing in US WWI propaganda, in a poster by the US Food Administration, Educational Division in 1918.

Santa Claus started appearing in Coca-Cola ads in the 1920s, according to the beverage company, causing the popular, but wrong, belief that Santa Claus is portrayed in red because of the brand’s color.

In 1930, Santa went to Australia:

The Queenslander Illustrated Weekly, Australia, December 25, 1930.

Santa went to war again in 1942:

Santa Claus in US WWII propaganda, 1942-1943, Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board.
The New Orleans National WWII Museum
WWII Propaganda poster.

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