Monday, March 27, 2023
March 27, 2023

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In Our View: Santa’s 1,800-year journey to your rooftop

The Columbian

Did your children or grandchildren wake up this morning to find out that Santa Claus visited last night?

While the children enjoy their gifts, let’s thank Santa and consider the cultural traditions that brought him to our homes.

As you may know, Santa Claus traces his lineage to a real person, Saint Nicholas, who lived in the third century. According to an article on the website, Nicholas was born around 280 A.D. in what is now the nation of Turkey. He traveled the countryside helping the sick and the poor. One story is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery by providing them with dowries so they could be married.

By the time of the Renaissance, stories of Nicholas and his legendary generosity were common in Europe, particularly in Holland, where he became known by the nickname Sinter Klaas.

Sinter Klaas came to America as early as December 1773, when Dutch settlers in New York distributed woodcuts of Saint Nicholas at their annual meeting. (Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death, was celebrated as his Feast Day.)

Sinter Klaas became Santa Claus. His stories gained popularity thanks to Washington Irving’s 1809 book, “The History of New York.” About that same time, giving gifts to children became more popular. The traditions began to merge. In 1822, Clement Clark Moore wrote the famous poem now known as “T’was the Night Before Christmas.”

By 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model, according to In the 1890s, The Salvation Army dressed unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sent them into the streets of New York to solicit donations for Christmas meals for needy families.

Newspapers were involved, of course. In 1881, cartoonist Thomas Nast used Moore’s poem to draw the first likeness of modern Santa for Harper’s Weekly. Nast depicted Santa as rotund and cheerful, with a white beard and a red suit trimmed with white fur.

In the 20th century, the Coca-Cola Co. refined the image. In 1931, Coke’s advertising agency commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to further develop Santa, and add an ice-cold Coke to his diet. Like Nast had done in the previous century, Sundblom based Santa on the famous Moore poem. He used his friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman, as a model. After Prentiss died, Sundblom based Santa on himself, painting while looking in a mirror.

The Sundblom Santa debuted in 1931, and Sundblom continued to paint original images through Christmas 1964, according to the Coca-Cola Co.’s online history. The original paintings are valuable and have been exhibited around the world in department stores and art museums including the Louvre. Today, you can see some of them at the World of Coca-Cola attraction in Atlanta.

Enough about Santa. What about Rudolph? According to, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the invention of Robert May, an employee of the Montgomery Ward department store chain. May wrote a poem about Rudolph in the style of Moore’s “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” His brother-in-law adopted it into a song we all know.

Rudolph made his debut in coloring books the department store gave away in 1939, making him a century younger than the other reindeer. His popularity quickly grew, particularly after the Rankin-Bass animated special debuted on NBC-TV in 1964.

It was a long, long journey for Santa Claus and Rudolph to your home. Now we wish you a Merry Christmas.