Santa Claus is now enthroned as the popular icon of Christmas. The instantly recognizable jolly old man dressed in his red suit and hat, both trimmed with white fur, smiles out at us from books, magazines, and advertising materials, as we see him depicted in Whitman's 1940 edition of "The Night Before Christmas."
But was Santa always "Santa," and did he always look like this? Well, yes and no, Virginia.
While Santa's origins apparently date back to the 4th century Nicholas of Myra, a popular minor saint, the figure now so firmly rooted in popular consciousness probably owes most to Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" and to illustrations of political cartoonist Thomas Nast (who famously satirized the notorious Boss Tweed, among others).
Moore's poem--opening with the well-known lines, "'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house..."--was first published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel in 1823. It presents Santa flying on a reindeer-drawn sleigh and coming down the chimney with the familiar bundle of toys on his back, now familiar parts of Santa lore. But it also describes him as "a right jolly old elf" "dressed all in fur" from head to foot and covered with "ashes and soot" (from the chimney).
And many nineteenth-century illustrations show Santa as more of a gnome than a grandpa figure, and one dressed in a wide variety of clothing, as well. Prang's 1864 edition of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (shown here in a facsimile) presents Santa much like Moore describes him--an elfish figure in brown fur outfit.
Over thirty illustrations rendered by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly from 1863 to 1886 are generally credited with shaping the popular image of Santa Claus into something more like the one we know today. Over the years, Nast's Santa changes from a brown-suited elf, so small that he stands on a chair to reach the fireplace, to the red-suited man more like that we're so familiar with today, as we can see in these two adaptations of Nast illustrations.
This image later became burnished and enhanced by Christmas-card sellers and purveyors of other products (notably Coca Cola in the 1930s), who saw the tremendous visual marketing appeal of Santa in an era when Christmas was becoming increasingly commercialized.
But throughout the nineteenth-century, Santa was presented in a variety of costumes and poses on the way to becoming the familiar icon of today. Perhaps no publisher's work shows this more clearly than that of McLoughlin Brothers, as evidenced by these covers of two their annual publication catalogs from the 1890s and the final illustration from one of their editions of Santa Claus & His Works.