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St. Nicholas of Bari, as the patron of childrenWho is Santa Claus? Where did he come from? How long has he been around? Simple questions with obvious answers, right? Maybe not so. You could be surprised with the variety of answers to these questions you might get from citizens of different countries around the world.

True, Santa is the most renowned modern legend, and is recognized around the world both in name and in deed, lauded universally as the patron of all children and as the magnanimous spirit of Christmas. Proudly, we here in the United States are able to rightly claim him as our native son.

Unfortunately, Santa's lineage is not an easy one to trace. But it is generally accepted that the acclaimed Saint Nicholas of Myra who was born in the city of Lycia, Turkey around 270 AD was his direct living ancestor. Saint Nicholas became a Bishop at an early age. He is credited with many miracles during his lifetime. Being the son of wealthy Greek parents, he was especially remembered for his many acts of charity when he dispersed his inheritance to the needy. His fame spread even more after his death, when crusaders carried tales of the healing powers of his relics on their journeys to the Holy Land, and then back to their homelands. Saint Nicholas became one of the most honored saints in the early Christian Church. More churches were named after him than any other saint except the Virgin Mary. He is still endorsed as the patron saint of more groups than any other saint to include children, bakers, bankers, thieves, prisoners, highwaymen, pawnbrokers, fisherman, soldiers, orphans, and barren women.

Saint Nicholas was brought to the New World before the Reformation. The cathedral of the Vikings in Greenland was dedicated to Nicholas. In the fifteenth century, Columbus, on his first voyage, named a port for him in Haiti. Jacksonville, Florida under the Spanish was first known as St. Nicholas Ferry. Saint Nicholas himself saw some duty as a gift bringer in Colonial America, many times accompanied by other old-world Christmas characters, but he never regained the popularity he had experienced in Medieval Europe.

It wasn't until early in the nineteenth century that an interest in Saint Nicholas was rekindled in America through literature and folklore. Thus it is to this era that we generally date Santa's birth. In 1809 Washington Irving's first major work, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Dedrich Knickerbocker, gave us the first literary description of the new Saint Nicholas. This Americanized icon was decidedly contemporary and not-ecclesiastical in appearance and demeanor, while still retaining many of the altruistic characteristics of his illustrious forbear. Irving's book, with its two dozen references to St. Nick, became the best seller of its day. It was read not only in the ornate drawing rooms of New York, but in the rustic log cabins dotting the frontiers to the West in America, popularizing Santa throughout the nation.


"And laying a finger aside of his nose..." Clement Moore

I am sure most of us remember our recitations as children of the opening lines of Clement Moore's poem, "Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse." This famous rhyme, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, written in 1822, greatly added to the fleshing out of Santa's unique personality. It gave us a sampling of his magic abilities, "And laying his finger aside of his nose, And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose,..." Then we became acquainted with Santa's eight speedy reindeer when he called them by name, "Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer! and Vixen! On, Comet!, on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!" To the delight of young and old alike this memorable poem has continued to enhance Santa's fame each year since, as it is published in every language around the world, having become a Christmas classic itself.

Pere Noel (Father Christmas) from FranceThe next giant step in the metamorphosis of St. Nicholas from holy cleric to a jolly elfin sprite began in 1863 when twenty-three-year-old Thomas Nast illustrated a version of Moore's poem for the Gregory Company of New York. This led to a job with Harper's Weekly where the first of his Christmas Santas appeared in the December 26, 1863 edition in a larger illustration titled, "A Christmas Furlough." For twenty-three years through the Christmas of 1886, Nast set aside his political cartooning to do an annual Santa drawing. These visual feasts graphically treated Victorian era society to the world and works of Santa through the vivid imagination of Nast. Innovations included glimpses of Santa's North Pole workshop, his visits to the camps of Union soldiers during the Civil war, his close association with many Mother Goose characters and the introduction of his now familiar red suit.

Santa's most colorful period was undoubtedly during the early twentieth century. Fueled by the international postcard craze that lasted from 1900 until well into World War I in 1917, images of St. Nick in a multitude of costumes and activities filled mailboxes and scrapbooks around the world. What had started out as a plain postal card in Austria in 1869, evolved in a few years to highly decorated, multicolored and embellished greeting cards that many considered works of art and few wanted to throw away. With German manufacturers in the lead, an international industry developed that was able to produce beautiful chromolithograph and photographic postcards by the millions at a reasonable price. Liberalized postal regulations (which included permission to write personal messages on the cards), coupled with reduced mailing rates and rural free delivery in the United States, gave birth to the glorious era of the "penny postcard" - and thousands of them were Santas.

It was during this time that we were made aware of Santa's great ability to be a "man of the world." It was obvious that he was still the prime source of Christmas gifts around the globe, but then we found that he really was not limited to just reindeer and sleigh in making his deliveries. We saw him aloft in a balloon; he was flying an airplane; he was captain of a boat; he drove automobiles of every conceivable make and he made steeds of many animals, not just the white horse, as Saint Nicholas. Yes, he was still above all, the friend and patron of children; we found him communicating with them not only through the mails and in department stores, but on that new-fangled invention, the telephone.


The fur-clad German Santa Claus, Pelze-Nicol,
with the Christkind (Christ Child)

Santa Claus oversees the opening
of the Panama Canal, August 15, 1914

Santa's dress was quite flamboyant too, akin to a chameleon. We found him not only in fur from his head to his feet, but also adorned in robes of white, purple, green, and black. Trimmings might be of gold, jewels or ermine. Santa's name even rolled off the tongue in the many dialects that reflected the ethnic melting pot of America. He might be called Santa Klaas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Sinterklase, Pere Noel, St. Nick, Pelznichol or St. Iclaus. But through it all he was still rotund and jovial and always recognizable as the contemporary Santa Claus.

Folklorists of the late nineteenth century, goaded by the findings of Aryan philologists, had tried to give Santa a new look dictated by linking him to the Northern gods Woden and Thor. The link was their common bond as Schimmelreiters (white horse riders). This forced allegiance had little lasting effect at the time. But during World War II the Nazis, guided by the explicit interest of Hitler, used this philosophy to reinstate the all but forgotten Weihnachtsmann. The updated German Santa, now looking more like the fat, belted New York Santa, presided over the ever popular Deutschland Advent and Christmas markets. Then in a last ditch effort by Goebbel's propaganda bureau to restore morale to bombed-out neighborhoods late in the war, a two-tone pamphlet titled "Der Weihnachtsmann" was distributed at great government expense.

The persona of Santa as most of us probably think of him today, as a larger than life grandfatherly figure in a fur-trimmed red suit, was largely the creation of artist, Haddon Sundblom. He was commissioned in 1931 by the Coca-Cola Company to produce ads that would picture St. Nick promoting their product. This was not a new idea. Santa had been used as an advertising tool since stores had first proclaimed themselves as "Santa's Headquarters," as early as 1841. On the day before Christmas that year, J.W. Parkinson of Philadelphia had a real "Criscringle" descending a chimney above the door of his shop to the amazement of all that passed by, especially the children.

Sundblom continued his paintings of Santa for Coca-Cola until 1968. They appeared on posters and numerous magazines each year where they were seen by millions of Americans. They were so widely accepted as the image of the real Santa that for the first time a common idea of Santa prevailed nationwide. It was this likeness that American servicemen took with them to World War II. They introduced their patron the world around, thus extending his realm of influence to the far reaches of the earth, just as the crusaders had done so long ago for their benefactor, Saint Nicholas of Myra. The Sundblom Santa is still instantly recognizable today and has been given new life in the marketplace with a multitude of re-production collectibles on the shelves.

California drive-time SantaAnd what of today's Santa? He has slimmed down somewhat - the pressures of the times. He still has the full white heard and shaggy eyebrows. He is most likely to wear his familiar black-belted, fur-trimmed red suit for official functions: like being in the Thanksgiving Parade, sitting in the mall taking Christmas orders from children and delivering presents on Christmas Eve.

But a new, more relaxed Santa now lurks in the background. He no longer retires to his North Pole Workshop immediately after Christmas Day. We see him basking in the sun in southern climes and taking part in all kinds of vacation activities after his work is done. He fishes, he sails, he golfs, he water skis. He spends time visiting sick children or even joins other youngsters for a picnic on a sandy beach.

Santa still has a penchant for trying new forms of transportation. Although Rudolph was added to his team of reindeer in 1939, courtesy of Robert May and Montgomery Ward and Company, we now find him astride frigate birds, swans, eagles and large white doves in the air and kangaroos, ostriches, and turtles on the ground. He drives a jeep, balances on a surf board, flies combat airplanes and even uses a magic flying carpet on occasion.

Santa's family has expanded since we first became acquainted with him. Mrs. Claus was introduced to us way back in 1899 when Katherine Lee Bates wrote of her in Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride. During the 1980s the American Lung Association presented Santa's daughter, Candy Claus. And there is a rumor that Santa has a younger brother, Skinny Claus, who always wears green and lives in Miami - look for him on the beach.

And now what of Santa's future? He will turn two hundred years old just after the turn of the century. Hardly a youngster, he has used the years wisely to ingratiate himself with the children of the world. More importantly, the parents and young-at-heart of the world still enjoy keeping the magic of his Christmastime activities alive. Would Christmas be the same without the arrival of Santa in town each year in the annual Christmas parade? Even if there is a wait in line, sitting on Santa's knee and whispering your fondest dreams to him could never be handled by anyone else. Parents would never understand. Being able to write Santa a letter and then get a colorful reply detailing all of the exciting activities at the North Pole is a very special treat becoming more popular each year. Finally Christmas Eve comes and cookies and milk are left so Santa will have energy to finish his rounds. And oh the excitement in the morning when everything that was asked for is found under the tree and in the Christmas stockings, just as Santa promised.

We have just to look around us to see that Santa is alive and well. His image is everywhere. Figures, books, coins, stamps, collectibles and decorations of all kinds abound. His ability to adapt and mold himself to fit into our modern society has given him longevity and hopefully immorality.

It was one hundred years ago, in 1897, that the most famous editorial response in history was penned in response to Virginia O'Hanlon's letter to the New York Sun in which she asked, "Please, tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?" Francis Pharcellus Church, a reporter turned editorial writer, responded and the prophecy of his words rings true today, a century later.

He wrote: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life the highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike existence. We should have no enjoyment except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished."

Then he concluded: "No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives forever. A thousand years from now. Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood." Viva Santa Claus!

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