Christmas is a time to relax with our families, take a much-needed break from school, and celebrate the coming of Jesus. Lights are hung from our rooftops, trees are dressed up in our homes, and gifts are littered on our floors. What you may notice in public, however, is something much more frantic. Brightly-colored ads invade store windows and bombard us as we walk by, and they’re all centered on the man in the red suit. Nowadays, Santa Claus is known as a man who brings toys to well-behaved kids on Christmas Eve, with a lesser-known backstory as a marketing scheme. Looking at his history, it seems Santa used to know that Jesus is the most important part of Christmas, but today, that belief has been lost.
The story begins with Saint Nicholas of Greece. As a young man he dedicated his life to Christ and became a bishop. He faced relentless oppression under the Roman emperor Diocletian due to his faith and was imprisoned for years. His sentence, however, only made his faith stronger. After his release he continued to study and worship God until his death in AD 343. After his death, researchers discovered that Saint Nicholas was a very wealthy man, as his parents died and left him a large inheritance. Several legends have been told about his good deeds of gift-giving, and although we cannot be sure that they are completely true, they are widely accepted to be at least partially factual due to his spirit and his wealth.
One story tells of a very poor father with three daughters. His daughters were unable to marry because they could not provide dowries, or large gifts of money and material wealth, to their husbands. Without spouses, the daughters were destined to become slaves. However, on three occasions, bags of gold were thrown through the family’s open window. It is said that each time this occurred, the bags of gold landed in stockings or shoes left by the fire to dry, which led to the custom of hanging stockings by the fireplace and filling them with gifts.
After the Reformation, tales about St. Nicholas became unpopular. The mysterious gift-giving figure evolved differently in each area of the world. In the U.K. he was called “Father Christmas;” the French knew him as “Peré Nöel;” in the U.S.A. he was “Kris Kringle.” The Dutch still believed the stories of St. Nicholas, and when some of them settled in America they combined this with Kris Kringle to make “Sinterklaas,” which, today, is Santa Claus. All of these figures still stood for the mission which Saint Nicholas had begun: charity and gift giving to those in need in the name of Jesus.
Traditional image of Father Christmas
As the world kept changing, advertisers for large brands in the Victorian era needed a way to advertise toys and holiday products. They portrayed Santa as a spokesman, overusing his image in ads and store decorations while simultaneously losing the meaning of the original figure. Unfortunately, this trend has only grown over the years. One of the most known and loved ad-Santas comes from Coca-Cola, which started featuring him in the 1930s.
Coca-Cola Christmas ad, 1931. This is the first Coke ad to feature Santa.
Understandably, marketing departments are doing what’s necessary to keep their business competitive around the holidays. The issue comes from the amount of influence that these ads have on all of us. The minute after Black Friday, Christmas sale commercials begin, and they’re almost completely centered on Santa. Gift giving is one thing; completely erasing what Santa used to stand for in favor of raking in cash is something quite different. This, unfortunately, is what we have to deal with in the secular world. It is up to us to keep the flame of Christmas in our own hearts, and share the Santa that once was with as many people as we can.
Conversations Staff. “The True History of the Modern Day Santa Claus.” The Coca-Cola Company, 1 Jan. 2012, www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-santa-claus.
Hodgman, Charlotte. “The Commercial Christmas.” History Extra, 23 Dec. 2013, www.historyextra.com/feature/commercial-christmas.
“Who Is St. Nicholas?” St. Nicholas Center, www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/.
whychristmas?com. “St. Nicholas, Santa Claus & Father Christmas.” Whychristmas?Com, www.whychristmas.com/customs/fatherchristmas.shtml.
All images are from Google unless otherwise noted.