In 1842, a popular children’s book featured illustrations of a stout, bearded, gift-giving character it referred to as Kriss Kringle. Although uniform depictions of this figure would not surface for another twenty years, the book’s drawings were in fact the first modern representations of the St. Nicholas we think of today.
This concept of Santa flying in a sleigh pulled by a reindeer had long been popular in Russia, where Father Frost arrived in the villages in a reindeer-drawn sleigh. The Norse god, Wodin, was said to ride his horse, Sleipner, through the air to make sure people were behaving; in Holland, St. Nicholas still rides Sleipner.
The name by which we more commonly know him would not gain currency until the middle of the century, when the pronunciation of Sinter Klaas had either evolved or been corrupted, depending on your outlook, to Santa Claus.
Although it had far less influence on the vision of Santa than Moore’s poem, the New York Sun’s editorial response to young Virginia O’Hanlon’s query about his existence has probably had a greater effect on the way people think about him. The piece, which ran first in 1897 and has resurfaced seemingly every holiday season thereafter, captured for both adults and children the essential innocence and trust of the Santa Claus tradition.
The Sun piece also supplied the nation with a catchphrase that helped unify the previously disparate roles Santa had played in various ethnic traditions. It is probably no coincidence that the phrase “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” entered the national lexicon at about the same time the mass media in general—and advertisers in particular—began in earnest to capitalize on the bearded one’s popularity. The nation finally had a single perception of Santa to which publishers and marketers alike could appeal.
Although Thomas Nast’s drawings had the greatest impact as far as standardizing the various images of St. Nicholas into a single chubby, smiling figure, the final touches were added (or at least formalized) in the 1920s by artist Haddon Sundblom in a series of Coca-Cola ads. Sundblom’s Santa had red cheeks, wore a red gown with white-fur trim, and radiated a rotund good cheer. Not surprisingly, he also liked Coca-Cola. The ad campaign ran for 35 years, and was even revived in the 1990s.
Francis Church, the writer for the New York Sun who penned the famous response to Virginia O'Hanlon's 1897 query about Santa Claus, never received credit for the work during his lifetime. That's not unusual for newspaper editorial writers, however; staff on newspaper editorial pages often write as the voice of the paper as a whole rather than as individuals.
And so St. Nicholas has made his way from Asia Minor to American department stores, undergoing a few alterations on the way. Indeed, it’s doubtful whether St. Nicholas would recognize himself in the Santa Claus of today if the two were to come face to face. Still, perhaps somewhere, somehow, St. Nicholas is aware of the joy his existence has brought to children and the children at heart everywhere.
After all, if it were not for this quietly devout and generous man, there would be no Santa Claus. And who could imagine Christmas without Santa?