Santa Claus – yet another famous New Yorker

A kindly, jolly older gentleman with loads of presents for well-behaved kids stands as one of the most recognizable images in the world. As if the good citizen of the Big Apple needed another reason to brag, but this image originated in 19th century New York.

The “Merry Old Santa Claus” drawn by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1881 (photo: Thomas Nast via Wikimedia Commons)

The current familiar depiction of Santa Claus, as it turns out, comes from the imagination of cartoonist Thomas Nast. He drew Santa for Harper’s Weekly every Christmas for over 20 years, starting in 1863. Thomas Nast took inspiration from the description given in the poem by another New Yorker – Dr. Clement Clarke Moore – “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), first published in 1823. Even though the famous poem was published anonymously, Dr. Moore, the owner of the Chelsea estate, claimed that he wrote it for his children and recited it to them during the family Christmas celebration in 1822.

The tale of St. Nicholas, Santa’s predecessor, starts way before the 19th century and takes place far away from New York City. St. Nicholas lived in the 4th century in Myra, modern-day Turkey, not the North Pole. He didn’t have a belly and did not sport a white beard. Instead, he was a young man notorious for his legendary kindness. St. Nicholas lost his parents when he was just a boy and came into some money. What he liked most was helping others, especially the poor and needy, and he was exceptionally generous to children. Being modest, he kept his identity hidden when distributing gifts. As the legend has it, on one occasion, he dropped a bag of gold through a chimney to secretly help with a dowry for a poor family. To the amazement of the family members, the stockings, left to dry by the fireplace, were filled with gold. That situation repeated itself, and the story of Nicholas secretly providing dowries for poor young ladies spread through the countryside. Because of his many kind deeds, St. Nicholas became a bishop of Myra despite his youth. He traveled around the land in a long red bishop robe and a red hat. Persecuted as a Christian, he was martyred and later named a saint.


Bicci di Lorenzo | Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The cult of St Nicolas persisted into 16th century Holland and the Dutch brought it to New Amsterdam. They called him Sinterklaas, which eventually became anglicized as Santa Claus. As per the old Dutch tradition, each year, on the anniversary of his death, December 6, the children received presents. Instead of the socks, the Dutch children put their clogs outdoors to be filled with sweets and gifts.

Even though, St Nicolas aged a bit while traveling through the centuries, still. . . How did the young 4th-century saint become the jolly, portly, deer-riding gift giver? Well, blame the New Yorkers! Specifically, Thomas Nast…

Santa Claus drawn by Thomas Nast in January 1863, for Harper’s Weekly (photo via https://www.smithsonianmag.com)

The first Santa drawn in 1863 wasn’t gifting children but was distributing presents for Union soldiers. A Union cause supported, he wore a jacket decorated with stars and pants colored in stripes. His entourage included a pair of deer. He appeared in cartoons 33 times through the years, changing his outfits and body image.

“Merry Old Santa Claus,” drawn in 1881 in Harper’s Weekly, finally shaped Santa’s image into the one we know today. A cheery, white-bearded man with a big belly, bearing gifts and dressed in a red and white outfit, is instantly and indisputably recognizable worldwide as Santa Claus.

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