The Changing Design Of Santa Claus

Jennifer Farley

As it’s almost Christmas Day, I thought it might be a good time to take a look at how Santa’s look and feel has changed over time.

Today’s Santa Claus is believed to have been inspired by a 4th century Greek Christian bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra. Saint Nicholas became known for his gifts to the poor. Early artists impressions portray him as a bearded man in canonical robes. A little something like this:

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Norse pagan God, Odin has also been linked to Santa. According to folklore, Odin was recorded as leading a hunting party through the sky during the festival of Yule. Odin’s appearance was described in Icelandic stories as Síðgrani, Síðskeggr, Langbarðr, which all mean “long beard” and Jólnir which means “Yule figure”.

When children placed their boots filled with sugar, carrots or straw (for Odin’s flying horse) near the chimney, their kindness was rewarded by Odin with gifts. This idea continued in Germany and the European low countries when Saint Nicholas and Christianity were adopted, with the modern practice of hanging stockings on the chimney breast. Again there are many artists impressions of Odin, here’s one with him sporting a beard and red coat on his flying horse.


Image Credit: Wikipedia

In more recent times, Saint Nicholas and Sinterklass (the Dutch Saint Nicholas) merged with the British idea of Father Christmas to become Santa Claus. In the seventeenth century Father Christmas appeared wearing a long green fur-lined robe and delivered good cheer and spirit of Christmas.

Image Credit: Postcard Images

Around this time in the Scandinavian countries, Saint Nicholas started to appear as a bringer of gifts with the Yule Goat. Over the next century, Nordic folklore described an elf called “Tomte” or “Nisse”,  a short, bearded man dressed in gray clothes and a red hat. The tradition of the Yule Goat as a bringer of presents is pretty much dead in Scandanavia, but the straw goat is still a popular Christmas decoration.

Santaandgoat julbock

Image Credits: Left Wikipedia, Right Scandinavian-South

From the late 1700’s onwards Santa Claus started to appear in more stories in Britain and America. As writers described him in various ways (including a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat), artists also began to depict Santa Claus and define the style we have become familiar with. Thomas Nast of Harper’s Bazaar is credited with being the first artist to define the modern Santa.

Minolta DSC

Image Credit: Son Of The South

From this point on, Santa has been depicted as the round-bellied, jolly old man we know and love. The myth that Coca-Cola invented the modern Santa is untrue but they did use his image in much of their advertising. It’s also untrue that they invented his red and white costume based on their own branding. Below you can see a 1931 advertisement for Coke which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Over the years Coca-Cola hired artists to create a new, yet traditional Santa Claus which many of us now accept to be “the” Santa Claus.


Image Credit: Coca-Cola

One of my friends brought her kids to see Santa at the weekend. And he was dressed in green and gave presents of small plants to the children. Is there a swing back towards the real old-school Santa of the eighteenth century with the long green fur-lined coat? Maybe there’s a teeny-tiny movement away from commercialism underway?

What do you think of the evolution of Santa’s appearance over the years?