Monday, December 15, 2014

Dreaming of a White Santa

Christmas has the incredible ability to entice seemingly normal people to heights of stupidity only matched the rest of the year by members of Congress.  Mostly recently, Megyn Kelly of Fox News exposed the breathtaking depth of her ignorance by opining that Santa Claus was white.

No, Megyn, Santa Claus isn’t white or black; he’s a Norse god transposed into a Christian saint and turned human size through an artist’s imagination and as a result of a lengthy ad campaign.

In fact, Christmas was not a December preoccupation until Santa Claus showed up.  He really is the reason for the season.  Early Church fathers rejected celebrating Jesus’ birthday, noting the human emperors did that, but not biblical patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses. 
Icon of St. Nicolaus

Pagans who took over the early Church liked parties, so the holiday became part of the religious calendar in the 4th century.  However, good Protestants, like the Puritans who landed in the New World in 1620, later spurned any festivities. 

However, they were forced to recognize St. Nicholas, who was supposedly martyred in the 5th century.  The Dutch believe that Dec. 5, the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas, the late bishop himself would drop down from heaven, visit good children in their homes and deliver gifts.  The revived cleric was expected to wear his proper religious costume, including a miter hat, and travel on the back of a flying gray horse.  Sometimes, a white donkey provided the ride -- depending where the tale was told.  He also was often accompanied by an elf, called Black Peter, who punished children who had been bad.

Actually, he was the Catholic Church’s way of incorporating gods of other faiths into its belief system. Like Nicholas, the chief Norse god, Odin, rode through the air on a gray horse each fall.  And, both men were known for long, white beards.  Dutch children left bits of straw in their shoes for Nicholas -- today's cookies and milk are certainly more palatable -- while Odin got a sheaf of grain. 

St. Nicholas also has similarities to Thor, the Norse thunder god known for his hefty physique and mighty hammer.  He had a beard, too, a red outfit and was pulled through the air by two goats, Cracker and Gnasher, names later transformed into reindeer names.  Thor also was associated with fire, and, therefore, was thought to use the chimney for entry into a house.

When Protestant England took over New Amsterdam in the 1660s and renamed it New York, the Catholic Dutch children still got their presents on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day.  Protestant English children demanded equal treatment.

That created a quandary: Protestants don’t recognize Catholic saints, even ones who look and act like Odin.  They shifted the gift-giving to their closest holiday, Christmas.  Their children got presents, but nothing else went on.

That changed in the 1822 when a pompous New York scholar named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a little poem to entertain his nine children. Moore didn't even claim authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas until 15 years after a friend gave it to a distant newspaper and launched him (and his poem) into immortality.

Moore drew his inspiration from a story by author Washington Irving and another, otherwise obscure, poem.  Moore’s wasn’t the austere, dark and forbidding image that scared Dutch children, but a St. Nicholas with “eyes that twinkled, dimples that were merry, cheeks like roses, a broad face, and a little round belly."  He was also very small.  After all, he drove a miniature sleigh pulled by eight "tiny" reindeer.

One poem was not powerful enough to transform the holiday, but the process was underway.  Just five years after Moore wrote his poem, an Episcopal bishop lamented that "the Devil had stolen Christmas and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing."

While the public may have been warming to Christmas, many churches still rejected -- and still do -- any hint of the holiday festivities we known today.  In 1855, New York newspapers reported that local Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches closed on December 25 because "they do not accept the day as a holy one."

By 1860, with Civil War about to convulse the country, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states.  In England, Queen Victoria set the standard for her people by following the old tradition of giving presents on New Year's Eve. 

Then, cartoonist Thomas Nast further enhanced Santa Claus.  The "father of political cartoonists," Nast began drawing Christmas images in 1863 for Harper's Weekly publication at the request of President Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to cheer the Union troops fighting in the Civil War.  One drawing featured a figure poised over a chimney by the rear of a sled hitched to eight tiny reindeer.

Nast's Santa
In subsequent illustrations, Nast came up with Santa's home at the North Pole, a workshop filled with elves, and his list of all the good and bad children of the world.  In Nast’s artistic hands, Santa was still jolly, but, now, he was ready to illustrate advertising and boost commercialism.  Retailers were not slow to scent this new opportunity.  Santa started to adorn premiums used to hype the sale of gifts now necessary for Christmas.  Stocking sales shot up; so, presumably, did the cost of coal needed to fill the oversized socks of bad kids.

In 1915, White Rock Beverages made Santa its unofficial spokesman by using his image to peddle mineral water and then, in 1923, ginger ale.  Coca-Cola trumped that idea with a mammoth holiday campaign that stretched three decades.  Artist Haddon H. Sundblom, a commercial
Coca-Cola's Santa
illustrator, drew his first Santa portrait for Coca-Cola in 1931.  He eventually generated at least one painting of Santa Claus every year until the series ended in 1964.

Santa’s evolution did not cease there.  Groups like the Salvation Army took to Santa as a benevolent figure.  Volunteers dressed up in red suits to raise money.  Volunteers of America clothed a man in Santa suit in 1902, adding a false beard.  The image was so unusual that the Chicago Daily News recorded the appearance for posterity.

By then, Santa was sporting a wedding ring, too.  Poet Katherine Lee Bates decided to give him a wife.  In 1889, she wrote Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, complete with Mrs. Claus.  The hefty bride didn’t become fixed in popular imagination until 1956 when George Melachrino’s song Mrs. Santa Claus imprinted the image.
Checking his list

What Moore initiated in 1822 has become an icon completely accepted by Americans and the assured vision of a once totally religious holiday.  Santa has become the symbol of all that was right in the world – “Yes, Virginia,” as one newspaper editor could insist less than 80 years after Moore's poem was written, “there is a Santa Claus.”  Today, radio and television stations dutifully report on Christmas Eve that an unknown object has been seen leaving the North Pole in time to make deliveries.

In many ways, Santa is more significant to Christmas than Jesus.  Many cities have banned publicly supported religious images, such as of Jesus and the nativity scene, but pictures of Santa abound without concern.

Of course, Santa is depicted as white.  That’s how Nast and Coca-Cola marketed him, but an imaginary figure has no ethnic background, no matter how much Fox News wants to give him one. 

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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