Santa Claus is a figure that today has become synonymous with Christmas, especially in American culture. However, this was not always the case. In the early 19th century, Christmas was celebrated in an entirely different manner. At the time in New York, Christmas was not a widely celebrated holiday, and was marked in a raucous manner by some, or not at all by others. So it wasn’t until later on in the 19th century that the popularity of Santa Claus became so widespread.
In 1822, Clement Moore, penned the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which is better known by the name “The Night Before Christmas.” This is a poem which is widely recognised today in American culture. It starts of as follows; ” ‘Twas the night before Christmas…”
In this poem Moore described Santa Claus with a few alterations to the way he had been described in the past to make him a jolly, likeable character that would be loved by the American people.
Santa Claus was based not on a fictional character but a real Dutch saint, who was a bishop in the fourth century. This European version of Santa Claus gave out birch rods to naughty children and as such, didn’t endear himself to Americans. Thus in the poem Moore wrote, he altered Santa Claus’ appearance from solemn and thin to fat and jolly, and gave him eight reindeer. Finally, he scrapped the dark side of Sinterklaas.
This was all done in an attempt to endear Santa Claus to Americans, both rich and poor. Fortunately for them it worked. Santa Claus became part and parcel of American culture by the mid 19th century. Slowly, year after year, details would be added to the Santa Claus mythos. In 1863, artist Thomas Nast created the image of Santa Claus that we are familiar with today – a jolly old man with a beer belly and a red suit that we all recognize today.
Furthermore, the notion of a Mrs. Santa Claus is also thought to have been popularised by American authors. In 1889, a poem penned by Katherine Lee Bates called “Goody Santa Claus On A Sleigh Ride,” introduced Mrs. Claus. It wasn’t until 1956 that the mythos of Mrs. Santa Claus was cemented in American culture through the popular song “Mrs. Santa Claus” by George Melachrino. It was later reinforced through the children’s book by Phyllis McGinley, “How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas” in 1963.
In the 1930’s, Haddon Sundblom furthered Santa Claus’ rise in American culture with the Coca Cola advertisement that illustrated Santa Claus with a Coca Cola. Finally, another event that led to the popularization of Santa Claus in American culture was the association of Santa Claus with altruistic organizations such as the Salvation Army. This subsequently fortified the image of Santa Claus as being a generous and compassionate character. This was cemented with the image of Salvation Army volunteers collecting money for charity during Christmas in Santa Claus outfits.
So as you can see, Santa Claus became a popular in American culture simply through the work of a few writers and artists.