The image of Santa Claus is one of the most familiar in the world. For as long as anyone can remember, the jolly, elderly, fat, bearded man in a red suit trimmed with fur has been the symbol of the nation's most popular holiday.
But like many things, the reality of Santa is more complicated than the appearance. His origins are complicated. In earlier traditions, he punished as often as he rewarded.
And he didn't always look the way he does today. As few as 140 years ago, Santa could be portrayed as a gnome-like little man, or a dashing beardless violinist, or a dignified bishop wearing a traditional miter. The history of Santa's changing form is closely tied to the history of Christmas, perhaps the most American of all holidays.
The first Americans - the first European-Americans, that is - not only didn't celebrate Christmas, they actively discouraged it. In Massachusetts, from 1659 to 1681, people could be fined five shillings for celebrating Christmas. Clergyman Cotton Mather called it ``an affront unto the grace of God.''
This seems surprising until one realizes that, despite its name, Christmas predated Christianity. Christmas has its roots in the pagan ritual celebrating the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen. Early Christians didn't celebrate it, and Origen, one of the church fathers, proclaimed it a sin to mark Christ's birthday ``as though He were a king or pharaoh.''
The Christianizing of Christmas began in 336 A.D., when Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as the official date of Christ's birth. It's widely believed that this was a deliberate attempt to co-opt the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a bawdy solstice celebration that lasted a week: It was easier to Christianize the festival than to abolish it.
So who is Santa Claus?
It was still centuries before Santa Claus would enter the picture. Although there are two historical St. Nicholases - both bishops in Asia Minor in the first half of the first millennium - it wasn't until the Middle Ages that St. Nicholas became associated with Christmas.
St. Nicholas was the beginning of Santa, but he's not the whole picture; he also draws on such pagan figures as the Norse god Odin (who may be the original source of the reindeer), and other European images of the Christmas spirit such as Knecht Ruprecht, mounted on his white horse, Schimmel; Father Christmas, perched atop a ram; and the Christ Child carrying his tree.
The Dutch are often credited with bringing Santa to America, but Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book ``The Battle for Christmas,'' suggests that this isn't so. There's no evidence of a St. Nicholas celebration in New Amsterdam (New York City before it was taken over by the British).
Instead, Nissenbaum and others have found ample evidence that the American Santa Claus is essentially an American invention - as is Christmas itself, at least as we celebrate it.
The roots of the modern Santa lie in New York City. The nostalgic urge to sentimentalize the past seems to be deeply rooted in the human psyche, but few people have been more aggressively sentimental than John Pintard, a New York merchant and founder of the state's historical society.
Pintard objected to the roughness of Christmas as it was celebrated in the early 19th century, and proposed a solution. Drawing on New York City's Dutch origins, he promoted Saint Nicholas as the city's patron saint - having a pamphlet printed in 1810 that's the earliest known American image of Santa - and suggested that the celebrations should be private and family-oriented rather than public and brawling. His brother-in-law, Washington Irving, picked up on St. Nick in his ``Knickerbocker's History,'' describing a recognizably Dutch figure in a broad hat, smoking a long pipe.
Pintard's clerical-looking Santa didn't catch on, and Irving's had only a minor influence, but one of the people affected was the writer of ``The Night Before Christmas.'' The poem was published anonymously in 1823, and quickly became part of the national culture. The poem's St. Nick isn't yet modern - he's tiny, and dressed entirely in fur - but it pointed the way to today's Santa Claus. Unlike his European counterparts, this jolly Santa does not carry a rod to punish wicked children; Christmas in America would never be a judgment day.
More than anything else, ``The Night Before Christmas'' changed the public perception of Christmas - and its mention of Santa leaving gifts for the children was particularly influential.
The spread of gift-giving played three important roles in the taming of Christmas. First, while preserving the element of role-reversal, giving gifts to children instead of social inferiors removed it from the arena of class-consciousness. Second, it turned the traditionally public celebration inward toward the family. A child-centered celebration was new in the United States.
Third, for a young country that was having difficulty reconciling its frugal roots with its rapid commercial expansion, Christmas gift-giving was an excellent excuse to loosen the purse strings.
First published Dec. 25, 2000Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times