St. Nicholas Gets a Makeover

There was a demand for equal time for St. Nicholas this week to balance the previous coverage on Santa.  This Sunday is the feast of St. Nicholas, so it’s the time to pay tribute to Western civilization’s other major dispenser of gifts to the naughty and nice.

Santa Claus is not exactly a style icon in that schlumfpy red suit and elf hat trimmed with fur. Okay, the suit makes sense for anyone whose job description requires him to ride around the world in an open sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer on a freezing winter night.  Warm, comfortable, and casual, but not hot by any stretch of any fashionista’s imagination…

And Saint Nicholas?  Once upon a time he didn’t think fashion mattered, as those tattersall check pants under the bishop’s robe scream loud and clear.  Not a good look, as Heidi Klumm would say.   A one-off Fendi sack might help.  And Knecht Ruprecht so needs to lose those boots.


Felix Timmermans, St. Nicholas in Trouble. Translated from the German by Amy Flashner. Illustrated by Else Wenz-Vietor (New York: Harper & Brothers, ca. 1932) Cotsen 14312.

St. Nicholas got it through his head that he had to get serious about the brand and hire some image consulting firms.  Here are two options from the Wiener Werkstatte that include makeovers for Krampus.  Pretty sharp accessories!


Dita Moser. Kalendar 1908 (Vienna: Weiner Werkstatte, 1907) Cotsen 52825.

diveky st nicholas krampus

St. Nicholas and Krampus post card by Jozsef von Diveky ca. 1915. Reproduced courtesy of Getty Images.

Then there is Lou Loeber’s radically stripped down ensemble, with Zwaert Pieter rockin’  stripes, from Nieuwe Beelding.   Glad the choice isn’t up to me.  All three work!


S. Franke. Gouden vlinders. Illustrated by Lou Loeber (Blaricum: de Waelburgh, 1927) Cotsen 6085.

Did Santa Always Look like Santa?

The Night Before Christmas (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., c. 1940)

The Night Before Christmas (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., c. 1940)

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).

Facsimile of “A Visit from St Nicholas” (Boston: L. Prang & Co., 1864)

Facsimile of “A Visit from St Nicholas” (Boston: L. Prang & Co., 1864)

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.

Santa Claus & His Works (New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1871-1886)

Santa Claus & His Works (New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1871-1886)

A Child's Christmas Cookbook (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1964)

A Child’s Christmas Cookbook (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1964)

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.

McLoughlin Brothers Illustrated Catalogue... (New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1896)

McLoughlin Brothers Illustrated Catalogue… (New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1896)

Catalogue of Paper, Linen & Indestructible Toy Books... (New York: McLoughlin Bros., c 1897)

Catalogue of Paper, Linen & Indestructible Toy Books… (New York: McLoughlin Bros., c 1897)

Santa Claus & His Works (New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1871-1886)

Santa Claus & His Works (New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1871-1886)