With his red suit, big belly and cheerful beard, the image of Santa Claus has been associated with the Christmas season for decades.
But it hasn’t always looked the way you might imagine it today, as its depiction has gone through several changes over the centuries. In fact, at one point he looked a lot like a famous rock singer, according to Steve Wilkens, professor of theology and ethics at Azusa Pacific University in California. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we had the Santa Claus we see today.
“You have this transformation from skinny young Elvis, old Elvis, then chubby Santa Claus,” Wilkens told USA TODAY, adding that the Santa Claus we all know today is “a modern invention.”
So how did Santa Claus end up looking like he is now?
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The origin of Santa Claus
To understand the appearance of Santa Claus today, we must go back to the year 260 AD, when the origin of Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, was born in present-day Turkey.
Nicholas came from wealth, Wilkens said, and when his parents died when he was young, he decided to be charitable with his inheritance. Nicholas was praised for throwing gold into the house of a man who had lost his money and was going to offer his daughters up for prostitution, according to an excerpt from “The Oxford Handbook of Christmas”.
“Nicolas became quite famous for his generosity, especially to the poor, and was eventually made a bishop,” Wilkens said.
The bounty of St. Nicholas became so popular that December 6 – the day of his death – became a public holiday known as the Feast of Nicholas, which became a “great opportunity for parades, dramatic impersonations, gift exchanges and family meals,” according to the Oxford Handbook of Christmas. It was also at this time that the first performances of Nicolas were created.
“Early depictions show him with a beard, but it’s a pretty tight beard, and he’s kind of scrawny,” Wilkens said.
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Saint Nicholas is starting to look like Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas has been praised for centuries, but his transformation into Santa Claus came when Dutch immigrants moved to the United States in the 18th century, bringing their love for Saint Nicholas. In the Netherlands he was known as Sinter Klaas, who later became Santa Claus.
The snowball began to play a role in its appearance in the 1810s when John Pintard of the New York Historical Society depicted Sinter Klaas in bishop’s garb, before his colleague Washington Irving created the image of the saint” outfitted with a low, wide-brimmed hat, an oversized pair of Flemish underpants, and a pipe,” from “Christmas: A Candid History” by Bruce David Forbes.
The biggest step in Santa’s appearance came in the 1823 poem that became known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. In the poem, this is how Santa Claus is depicted:
- “He was dressed all in fur, from head to toe,
And his clothes were all stained with ashes and soot.”
- “His eyes, how they twinkled! Her dimples, how joyous they were!
Her cheeks were like roses, her nose like a cherry!”
- “He had a broad face and a small round belly, which quivered when he laughed, like a bowl of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a jovial good old elf.
“That poem was deeply, deeply influential,” Wilkens said.
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With the help of Coca-Cola, the image of Santa Claus is complete
If “‘It was Christmas Eve” created the image of Santa Claus, Thomas Nast – the German illustrator who created the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey – brought it to life with his drawings in “Harper’s weekly”. Forbes describes Nast’s designs as “a bit different from our modern image” with a furry hat and clothes “that looked like very itchy long underwear”.
The final piece of the puzzle was with the help of Coca-Cola. Artist Haddon Sundblom was commissioned by the soda company to draw Santa Claus, and it was he in 1931 who painted the figure in his iconic red costume that we see today, and may continue to see for a long time.
“I’m always nervous about predicting the future,” Wilkens said of Santa’s future look. “We’re about 100 years old now and Santa looks a lot like the old Coca-Cola Santa from 1931.”
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.