Perhaps one of the most iconic images of Christmas in America is Santa Claus. A round, cherubic man with a long white beard and a hearty laugh. Accompanied by his six (or sometimes seven) reindeer, he travels the world delivering presents to good little girls and boys. But such was not always the case.
The Separatists of Plymouth Colony and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony abhorred Christmas. They viewed it as a vestige of the Anglican Church they were trying to leave behind or change. This is typical of non-conformist churches in Britain, such as the Baptists, Congregationalists, Prebyterians, and Quakers. Anglicans and Lutherans, however, followed practices similar to the Catholic church. One of the major complaints of the Puritans and Separatists was that Christmas was too papist.
This attitude prevailed throughout the northeast until the nineteenth century, but in the south it was different. Unlike the northeast, the Anglican church was predominant. Holiday celebrations were festive events with decorations in homes and churches. The season was filled with music, singing, and dancing. Many of the songs would be unrecognizable today. But the carol Joy to the World, by Englishman Isaac Watts dates back to 1719 and was often sung.
By the nineteenth century we start to see a number of traditions from different parts of the world come together into the image of Santa Claus that we see today. Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop whose passion was caring for and giving gifts to the poor. By the Middle Ages, children were given presents on his feast day, December 5.
The Christkindl was promulgated by Martin Luther as a replacement for St. Nicholas. In many Germanic countries of Europe the Christkindl represented the Christ child, bringing presents to children each December 24. This practice was brought to America by German immigrants, but the English speakers heard this pronounced differently, and by the nineteenth century we have Kris Kringle appearing.
In England, Father Christmas dates back to the days of Henry VIII. A large man in green and scarlet-red fur-lined robes, he was the representation of the good cheer and festivities of Christmas. Since England no longer celebrated St. Nicholas’ feast day, the appearance of Father Christmas moved to December 25.
In France, it was Pére Noël who brought presents. Children left their shoes by the fireplace with carrots or other food for his reindeer. Pére Fouettard travels with Pére Noël, reminding him of how well-behaved a child was during the past year.
In the low countries of the Netherlands and Belgium, it is “De Goede Sint” (the Good Saint), Sinterklaas, who represents the season. Dressed in the red and white robes of a bishop, a red mitre, and a gold crosier, the white-bearded Sinterklaas oversees the giving of presents. He is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who carries Sinterklass’ book.
It is the more well-known Clement Moore who penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823 who brought us the sleigh and flying reindeer landing on the roof, as well as the image of Santa Claus that we have today. The nineteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Nash brought Santa Claus to life in Harper’s Weekly.
As the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed, bits of each of these traditions combined to become the image we have today. Father Christmas’ hefty size and scarlet robes that became brighter red. Sinterklass’ red mitre became a pointy, fur-trimmed hat. Pére Noël’s shoes became stockings. And Clement Moore’s reinder, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder (now Donner), and Blixem (now Blitzen), still ferry him around the world.
Charles W. Howard made a lifetime career out of playing Santa Claus. Starting with his 4th-grade portrayal at the turn of the century, he became a popular portrayer of Santa in stores, parades, and other events. From 1948 to 1965 he was the official Santa Claus for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1937, he founded the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School to teach others how to best portray this beloved character. The school is still in operation today, in Midland, Michigan.