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Today’s Santa Claus is rooted in American mythology

America’s Santa Claus combined consumerism, ecumenical religion and the bond between parent and child

A child meets Santa Claus on Dec. 3. at the La Porte County Fairgrounds in Indiana. (Amanda Haverstick/La Porte County Herald-Dispatch/AP)
7 min

Santa Claus is an American. This news may surprise readers who know he lives at the North Pole (where an American artist, Thomas Nast, put him in Christmas 1866) or who remember that the historical St. Nicholas lived in what’s now Turkey. But the modern Santa Claus we know, with his sleigh and his reindeer and his roots in St. Nicholas, was born with the United States in the early republic, when U.S. citizens sought to build a new kind of national mythology.

On Dec. 23, 1773, in New York City, Santa Claus first appeared in print with an announcement by Rivington’s Gazetteer that “St. Nicholas, otherwise called St. a Claus …” had been honored by “a great number of sons of that ancient Saint.” “St. a Claus” was an Anglicization of the Dutch Sinterklass, and the Sons of St. Nicholas one of the many brotherly “saint’s societies” that dotted Colonial America. (While we have no other record of this particular society, fraternal organizations like this one usually functioned as places to socialize, do charity work and drink.)

War and revolution soon broke out, and meetings of the society seemingly ceased, but Santa Claus had already come to town. And in the aftermath of the American Revolution, he stayed, because Americans were searching to build a new identity, and St. Nicholas, a.k.a. “St. a Claus,” was an inheritance from the colonial Dutch past rather than the English — a perfect choice to rally around.

Washington Irving, the most important writer of the Early Republic, most famous today for his stories about the Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle, incorporated St. Nicholas into his 1809 “History of New York,” where a character sees “good St. Nicholas … riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.” St. Nicholas is the mascot and patron saint of Colonial New York in Irving’s fictionalized take on New York history, a piece of beloved historical mythmaking read across the state and nation.

The most famous Santa Claus of the day came from Irving’s acquaintance Clement Clark Moore, who in 1822 wrote “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” generally remembered today for its first line — “Twas The Night Before Christmas.”

Moore’s St. Nick smoked a pipe and rode across the treetops with his rotund build and twinkling eyes. Moore’s poem was a hit, and soon became a fixture of American childhood across the country — as did Moore’s particular take on Santa Claus. (Ironically, the poem was reportedly originally published without his permission after a visitor to his home spotted it and copied it down. Perhaps Moore, a seminary teacher and scholar of classical literature, was hesitant to give his name to children’s literature.)

Christmas was changing across the industrializing West in the early 19th century, but Santa Claus wasn’t associated with adult revelry like Britain’s Father Christmas, and lacked the supporting cast of France’s Pere Noel or the Dutch St. Nicholas. So why did the American-born hero of Moore’s poem become such a hit? Because Santa Claus was a potent weapon in the fight to build a new American culture, combining consumerism, ecumenical religion and the bond between parent and child.

In the beginning, the Santa Claus of the early 19th century left a treat or a toy for good children — and a cane for spanking bad ones. In a time when corporal punishment was widely accepted, Santa Claus was no different than other authority figures. In one 1821 story, he tells children that if parents did use his cane to beat them, they were simply honoring the Bible’s message about sparing the rod and spoiling the child.

But by the middle of the century, Santa Claus had lost his edge, reflecting broader shifts in American culture. In the hands of Fanny Longfellow, Santa Claus became a gentle moralizer in the 1850s, telling the Longfellow sons that “I wish I could say you had been as good boys this year as last.” Elsewhere in America, mid-19th century newspaper letter writers urged their fellow citizens to reward even the children that “haven’t been quite as good children as they ought to have been.” The years leading up to the Civil War were a time when corporal punishment was on the decline and sentiment on the rise, where rewarding good children was more important than punishing bad ones. A kinder, gentler Santa Claus was the perfect vehicle for this new age.

If parenting was changing, so too was the population. It was an age when unprecedented numbers of German and Irish immigrants were transforming the ethnic makeup of the new nation. Anglo-Americans often took this badly, with the nativist, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement reaching its height in the 1850s, just as Santa was making it big. He was just the man to heal these divisions. Inspired by the Dutch colonial legacy, infused by German sentimentality, gradually stripped of the “saint” title that might have alarmed anti-Catholic nativists, Santa Claus was a figure for almost every American (those who celebrated Christmas, anyway) to appreciate.

The clash between Protestants and Catholics was not the only religious divide in antebellum America. The Second Great Awakening pitted revivalist churches against establishment denominations, with some Americans discarding religion altogether, and others embracing new religious movements like Spiritualism.

Santa Claus had meaning for almost everyone, regardless of their religious outlook. Some, like Spiritualist leader Andrew Jackson Davis, remembered their discovery of the truth behind Santa Claus as beginning their turn to “incorrigible skepticism” — while others, such as future Texas Gov. James Hogg, remembered childhood folk theologies like Santa Claus acting as God’s herald, commemorating a victory over the devil. In a nation divided on matters of faith, almost everyone who believed in Christmas could believe in Santa Claus.

When the Civil War came, Santa Claus assumed different meanings in the North and South. Thomas Nast created a patriotic Santa Claus for Northern audiences, decked out in the Stars and Stripes and bringing presents to the troops at the front. (Nast would later repurpose this Santa Claus with most of the wartime symbolism removed for a united nation after the war.)

Santa was a more controversial figure south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Though Santa was remembered sentimentally by some writers in the Confederacy, other writers took the opportunity of the war to reject old mythology. The Richmond Examiner announced to its readers that Santa was a “dutch toy-monger, an immigrant from England … who has no more to do with genuine Virginia hospitality and Christmas merry makings than a [racial slur denoting Africans].” (Not all Richmonders were so skeptical. The diarist Sallie A. Brock remembered after the war how “kind old Santa Claus” had brought the good works of White Richmond women to Confederate soldiers in the field.)

Santa Claus outlasted the Confederacy. By 1870, Christmas was a national holiday, and by the end of the century, the “dear old boy” was a sentimental favorite for Northerners and Southerners alike. A new national identity had been forged, an ecumenical, sentimental one with its roots in a diverse American past, prosperous commercial present and optimistic view of the future.

In many ways, the United States of today is very different than it was in the decades after the American Revolution — we’re more secular, more diverse and more connected, with a global Santa Claus industry that has long since escaped the world built for him by Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore. But we’re still wrestling with the power of consumer capitalism in our lives, still trying to figure out how to build national symbols we can all rally around, and still working to teach our children how to be nice instead of naughty.

Maybe we still need Santa Claus today.