Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Santa Claus: Looked Like a Boxer
Back in February, I rather inexplicably wrote a blog about the origins of Father Christmas. In a nutshell, his jolly attire was first described in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ (‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas etc etc’) in 1823. In 1863, an illustrator named Thomas Nast first drew ‘Santa Claus’ (from ‘Sinterklaas’ – ‘Saint Nicholas’ in Dutch), gradually turning his coat from brown to red. By 1881, Nast had pretty much transformed the character into what we might through gritted teeth refer to as Coca-Cola Santa – bearded, jovial, a hit with the kids … a less disturbing Captain Birdseye, if you will.
But actual Coca-Cola Santa – the one who drives around treacherously snowy mountain passes delivering carbonated drinks – wasn’t invented until fifty years later (1931), making him three years younger than Mickey Mouse. The Coca-Cola Company had been trying throughout the 1920s to push Coke as a year-round drink (‘Taste Knows No Season’ proclaimed an early ad – a slogan latterly nicked by the likes of Magners and Pimm’s), and they eventually decided to appropriate Christmas. Coca-Cola Santa’s creator, Haddon Sundblom, used Clement Clarke Moore’s poem and Thomas Nast’s illustrations as his inspiration – hence the red attire – and the character finally made the leap from niche publications to national magazines, whose pages he graced for over thirty years. So: Coca-Cola did not invent Santa’s red suit.
But who is this Sinterklaas/Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas character anyway? Right. So Nicholas was a pretty ordinary boy from a third-century southern Turkish fishing family. Unfortunately, that’s about as much historical info as we seem to have, because the rest of his life story digresses into nonsense about miracle-working, for which he became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. One of his miracles was to resurrect three boys whose remains were being sold as pickled ham by a mentally unhinged butcher.
Saint Nicholas was also known for his anonymous generosity to the poor, for which he inexplicably became the patron saint of pawnbrokers – who are surely known less for anonymously helping the poor than for conning them out of their prized possessions and selling them on at a profit? But I digress. The three golden balls (steady on) that often hang outside pawnbrokers’ shops are a reference to the three sacks of gold that feature in the most famous Saint Nicholas story, in which he helped a poor widower who couldn’t afford to give his three daughters a decent dowry, by secretly throwing three bags of gold into the daughters’ bedrooms at night. This presumably happened on or around 6 December, since that is when we celebrated Saint Nicholas Day at my primary school – Saint Nicholas C of E – although what our teachers neglected to tell us was that the three daughters were probably about to be sold into prostitution by their dear old dad.
Saint Nicholas is unique in that most of his bones have been preserved in one spot, a crypt in Bari, Italy. In the 1950s, the Catholic Church allowed a scientific survey of the bones. In 2005, when these findings eventually found their way to a forensic laboratory in England, it was revealed that Saint Nicholas was barely five feet tall and had a broken nose.
‘But what about the reindeer?’ I hear you cry. Well, Ancient Norse mythology tells of Thor, the God of Thunder, who was known to fly through the stormy skies pulled in a chariot by magical goats (that’s right, magical goats) named Gnasher and Cracker. Suddenly Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (invented in 1939) no longer seems quite so bizarre.