10 Surprising Early Versions of Santa Claus
By Alex Palmer
Big belly, red fur coat, beard; the image of Santa Claus has been pretty firmly set for much of the 20th century. But Santa used to look quite different from the familiar fellow we know today. He used to be skinny, then he was tiny, and in some cases he rode in a flying blimp or wore a three-cornered hat. So the next time you hear the tune “Here Comes Santa Claus,” try imagining if one of these alternative early Santas showed up instead.
1. The Original St. Nick
St. Nicholas Center // Public Domain
Gaunt, bald, barefoot, and decked out in ecclesiastical robes (complete with halo above his head), this version of St. Nicholas looks nothing like the jolly fat man we know as “Santa Claus.” But in fact, this was the first image of the character in the United States. Commissioned by New-York Historical Society co-founder John Pintard for that organization’s annual St. Nicholas feast day dinner (held December 6, 1810—December 25 wouldn’t become Santa’s day until years later), the image was meant to help the attendees venerate this virtuous patron saint of sailors and travelers. Pintard hoped New Yorkers would embrace St. Nick’s moral example as a tribute to the city’s old Dutch heritage, perhaps even elevating the figure to patron saint of Gotham. Pintard would fail in this mission, but the character he introduced to the U.S. would still have great impact on New York, and the country as a whole.
2. Birch Stick Santa
St. Nicholas Center // Public Domain
This “Santeclaus” appears in the first known picture book featuring the character—1821’s The Children’s Friend, published by William Gilley. This Santa is a bit more fun than Pintard’s: He rides a sleigh driven by a single reindeer (inspired by Washington Irving’s satirical description in his 1809 A History of New-York, in which St. Nick gets around on a flying wagon); rather than a halo, he wears a furry hat—and a smile. But lest one think this guy is all fun and gifts, note that stick held in his right hand. Santa was still chiefly a disciplinarian, who leaves a “long, black birchen rod” in children’s stockings, urging parents to use it “When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”
3. Sneaky St. Nick
St. Nicholas Center // Public Domain
This mischievous fellow, completed by artist Robert Walter Weir around 1838, is a far cry from the upright bishop of the early 1800s. He more closely resembles the goofy version of St. Nicholas that Irving described in A History of New-York, who smoked a clay pipe, and while “laying a finger beside his nose” rode over treetops in a flying wagon, bringing gifts to the children of New York.
It was Irving’s figure that inspired Clement Clarke Moore’s version of a “right jolly old elf” in his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” with twinkling eyes, and the appearance of “a pedler just opening his pack,” and which also clearly inspired Weir here. The kind, jolly version of Santa would win out in the next decades, but these more puckish takes on the character were once the norm.
4. P.T. Barnum’s Santa
Antiques // Public Domain
is a particularly weird example of the playful versions of Santa that would be replaced soon enough. When Swedish singer Jenny Lind toured the U.S. in 1850, her promoter, P.T. Barnum, created this pamphlet (along with a variety of other Lind-related merchandise) to help generate interest in her shows. While the pamphlet describes Santa as a fellow with pockets full of presents who flies down the chimney, little else resembles the modern version of Santa. He wears a three-cornered hat and looks like an 18th-century patriot. He rides with Lind on a broomstick and goes up to a mountaintop, declaring, “I am dancing a jig, I am having a freak.” Barnum’s Santa reflects how undefined the character remained through the mid-1800s.
5. Thomas Nast’s Tiny Santa
Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings For The Human Race via Archive.org // Public Domain
Thomas Nast, bane of New York’s Tammany machine and creator of the elephant as a symbol for the Republican Party, is among the greatest political cartoonists in American history. But perhaps his most influential works are his illustrations of St. Nicholas. Beginning in 1863 and continuing for about a quarter-century, Nast drew annual Christmas illustrations for Harper’s Weekly, featuring the jolly Santa engaged in all sorts of activities: taking phone calls, bringing gifts to Union soldiers, or racing Mother Goose.
The popularity and wide circulation of these illustrations has led to Nast being credited as the one person who firmed up the modern image of Santa. But not all of his works look like the figure we recognize today. In a number of illustrations, Santa is very short—taking the “elf” description in Moore’s poem to the extreme, Santa is depicted as a head or two shorter than the children to whom he was bringing gifts. In this image, Nast takes him even smaller, making Santa and an assortment of other nursery rhyme characters miniature.
6. L. Frank Baum’s Young Santa
Bauman Rare Books // Public Domain
By the 20th century, Santa’s personality and characteristics were largely defined. But little had been said about his past. Sure, there was the historic Saint Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra with a rich mythology of his own. But by the 1900s, Santa Claus was so far removed from this religious progenitor that he merited an origin story of his own. L. Frank Baum, the mind behind the Wizard of Oz series, took a crack at it with his 1902 book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, offering up an imaginative biography of the North Pole dweller. He describes how baby Claus was found abandoned in the forest of Burzee, was adopted by Ak the Master Woodsman, kidnapped by the evil army of the Awgwas, and befriended the reindeer Flossie and Glossie. It’s a wild tale, and includes some odd illustrations of Santa as an infant and young man, dressed more like Fred Flintstone than St. Nick.
7. Santa and His Flying Machine
Via Smithsonian Magazine // Public Domain
A sleigh is so passé. That was the conclusion of some illustrators during the late 19th century and early 20th century, when they began drawing Santa on postcards, magazines, and advertisements in futuristic (for the era) flying machines. An illustration in the December 1922 issue of Science and Invention depicted a radio-obsessed boy dreaming of Santa arriving with gifts of radio parts in an elaborate contraption resembling a blimp. A postcard from 1908 shows Santa in his version of a hot-air balloon with “Merry Christmas” emblazoned on the side. This motif popped up throughout this era, but the sleigh proved far more enduring.
8. Sexy Santa Claus
Wikimedia // Public Domain
, a satirical magazine that published out of New York City during the 19th and early 20th centuries, featured Santa on their cover a number of times. He looks much like the Santa who became widely adopted as the definitive character, but the unusual part is less about how Santa looks than what he is doing. In the image above, illustrated by Australian artist Frank A. Nankivell, he is enjoying the affections of two beautiful women who look nothing like Mrs. Claus. In another, from Christmas 1905, Santa is getting up close and personal with a comely blonde.
9. Stickup Santa
Print Collection // Public Domain
On its 1912 cover, illustrated by Will Crawford, Puck featured Santa pointing a handgun at the viewer, with the caption “Hands Up! As Santa Claus Looks to Some of Us.” The illustration satirizes the concerns expressed by many at this time about how Christmas giving had gotten out of control. This was the same year that saw the launch of SPUG—the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, with members including Teddy Roosevelt, who protested the expectation that individuals were supposed to buy gifts for an ever-expanding list of friends, family, and acquaintances.
10. Smoking Santa
University of Kentucky // Public Domain
Coca-Cola is erroneously credited with “creating Santa,” and while that’s not the case, they did help spread his image far and wide through ubiquitous print advertisements and billboards. But while the soft drink company was and continues to be one of the most prominent users of Santa as a pitchman, he has also graced ads for more products than could fit in his sack—including some made by Big Tobacco. He has appeared on print ads for Marlboro, Pall Mall, Camel, and many others.
Oobject rounded up a handful of these mid-20th century images. While the kid-friendly promotion of smoking is problematic, it should be noted that Santa was a smoker in his earliest iterations, puffing on a clay pipe in Irving’s A History of New-York and “the stump of a pipe” in Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But Santa has since kicked the habit, so the only smoky smell on his suit now is from chimney soot.