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The Changing Faces of Santa Claus

The image of Santa Claus as a man with a white beard and a big belly wearing a bright red suit is one that has evolved over time. There are numerous theories as to his origin – one being a 4th century Greek Christian bishop named St. Nicholas of Myra who was known for his gifts to the poor.  Early artists depicted him as having a long beard and wearing canonical robes.

Another theory is he was inspired by the Norse pagan God, Odin, who according to legend led a hunting party through the sky on a flying horse during the festival of Yule. Children would fill their boots with sugar, carrots or straw, leave them on the hearth for Odin’s horse and they were rewarded with gifts. This was adopted by European countries and evolved into children hanging stockings on the chimney. There were many renderings of Odin – most of them have him wearing a red coat and having a long white beard as seen here.

In the 17th Century, Santa Claus wore a long green fur-lined robe and was based on a combination of Sinterklass, the Dutch St. Nicholas, and the British Father Christmas.   He began to appear in more British and American stories beginning in the late 1700’s and writers described him as “thick-bellied” and wearing a green winter coat.

Thomas Nast of Harper’s Bazaar is credited with being the first artist to define the modern Santa and images from then on depict the Santa we are familiar with.  The 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore helped to popularize the Santa story.

There’s a myth that Coca Cola invented the modern Santa Claus and based his red coat on their logo.  While it isn’t true, they did use Santa in all of their holiday advertising and hired artists to create a new, yet traditional, image of Santa each year.  Shown here is an ad from the 1931 edition of the SATURDAY EVENING POST.

From all of us at The Art Shop, we wish you a very merry Christmas, a belated happy Chanukah, a happy Kwanzaa and whatever your cause for celebration, we hope it is a happy one.  A healthy, happy New Year to all of you too!

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