BY: KIEL WATSON
At this time of year you see him everywhere. The red velvet hat and suit, big white beard and rosy cheeks can be found at every mall, at the museum, or at the fire station. While our modern image of Santa Claus has remained the same for roughly as long as anyone can remember, it is still fairly recent.
The very real figure of Saint Nicholas made the news recently when it was believed that his tomb was found beneath a Turkish church. Having passed away around AD 350 after having spent his inherited fortune to help the poor, tales began to spread after his death of the saint protecting children. Over time the legend began to change in different countries, resulting in Sinterklass and his now controversial helper Black Pete in the Netherlands, naughty children fearing the arrival of Santa’s devilish counterpart Krampus Germany and other european countries, and a Yule Goat in Finland.
Representations of Santa varied over the years with depictions showing him ranging from a tall and skinny, a diminutive elf, to the plump human fellow we are more familiar with. He could be found wearing animal skins, the traditional robes of a bishop (a position the real Saint Nicholas held in life) or be garbed in green, blue and eventually red.
Santa was brought to the Americas by settlers originally, among them the Dutch who settled in New York. In a very interesting publicity stunt, author Washington Irving (Legend of Sleepy Hollow) wrote a book on Dutch history under a pen name as a Dutch historian- and then reported his pen-name as missing. The resulting public speculation about the missing historian helped make his book, which was meant as satire, to the forefront of society in 1809 New York. His representation of the St. Nicholas as the wagon-riding pipe-smoking giver of presents we are familiar with laid the groundwork for others.
In America at that time, Christmas was not the major holiday it is now, and the work of Irving gave the basis for “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” or as it’s more commonly known, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” First published anonymously in 1823, the poem greatly influenced gift-giving tradition helped cement the details of the Santa mythos. Charles Dickens helped Christmas earn its place in the hearts of Americans 20 years later with A Christmas Carol.
The modern appearance of Santa was shaped in part by the Coca-Cola company. Having hired Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create paintings for their advertising campaign, the resulting oil paintings gave us the modern image of Santa that we all are familiar with today.
Early in the last century, as department stores spread across the country like a bunch of glamorous Walmarts, Christmas displays and a Santa for children to visit became common. The story of Santa spread, as millions of children throughout the country waited for a magical jolly fat man to squeeze through a keyhole or down a chimney (if you’re in Hawaii he comes by boat instead of sleigh.) As they grew older they stopped believing, but when they later had children they told the same stories to their kids. They took their children to see Santa at the mall, and addressed presents under the tree on Christmas eve as coming from Santa.
There have always been those who claim Santa isn’t real. In a letter to the New York Sun in 1897, purportedly written by 8 year old Virginia O’Hanlon, the question was asked “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
The reply by Francis Pharcellus Church published by the New York Sun has gone on to be the most reprinted news editorial in history.
“VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
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 its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and 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.”
There is a cohesive argument that tells us that Santa Claus is, in fact, very real. The evidence surrounds us, especially at this time of year.
Every year, untold number of children behave in fear of being naughty and not getting presents. Every year parents lie, sneak and fool their children into their belief. As the holiday season approaches, billions are spent on gifts, some of which come from Santa–and that is good enough.