Modern depictions of father Christmas are pretty uniform. He’s an old overweight man with a beard and that weird hat that no one else wears. I’ve never seen anyone wear that kind of hat apart from people dressing up as him. So where did he get it?
Hat or no hat, Santa Claus was not always depicted this way. He wore green until the Coca-cola company successfully changed his image as part of a marketing campaign. But even at that point his image was pretty firmly set. Go back further and you’ll find a Santa Claus much different in appearance. /early versions of Santa varied wildly. With some he didn’t have a beard. With some he wasn’t even jolly – and with some he possessed great sexual magnetism.
The modern version of santa comes from 2 figures who merged together thanks to 19th century writers. One figure was Saint Nicholas, a christian saint known for giving gifts to children. The second was Sinterklaas, an early version of santa from Dutch folklore. According to tradition Sinterklaas seems to live in Spain, rather than the North pole. He rides a horse, rather than magic slay. So right off the bat it doesn’t sound too great. But he does have a little friend called black Pete, who I guess is meant to be genetically African.
The modern conception of Santa Claus has less blackface. But some versions in between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus have been quite strange. The early 19 hundreds often saw father Christmas depicted with a flying machine. Some even suggested he was a time traveller from the future, which would explain how he could travel the world in a matter of hours. At this point in time people saw balloon travel as the future of transportation.
But that kind of airtravel fell out of favour when airships began exploding. Mysteriously, it was around this time that Santa stopped being depicted riding balloons. It was one of many trends of the day in depictions of father Christmas.
Another trend was that Santa Claus was a bit of a ladies man. It began with satirical publications showing Santa Claus surrounded by women. But it soon went beyond satire and he essentially became a sex symbol. Some were furious that a family friendly figure like Father Christmas was now a sex symbol.
Thankfully this trend did not last long – although if you go on certain websites around this time of year you might think otherwise. Santa Claus wasn’t always seen as jolly… but nor was Hitler and look at him now. Unlike Hitler, Santa Claus was largely conceived in New York, with local illustrator Thomas Nast essentially creating him. He drew the illustrations for a magazine called Harper’s Weekly. It was a major magazine, giving Nast a platform to craft the popular image of Santa over many years.
During the American Civil War he used Father Christmas for propaganda. A vocal abolitionist, he drew Santa giving presents to Union soldiers. It was arguably is value for propagandists that made Santa Claius an important part of Christmas. Political activists like Nast and corporations like the Coca-Cola company ensured his image was shown far and wide. Father Christmas, at the core, is a marketing tool.