10 Surprising Early Versions of Santa Claus

Antiques // Public Domain
Antiques // Public Domain

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

This

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, 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

Puck

, 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.

Get Into the Halloween Spirit With Harry Potter and Star Wars Costumes and Accessories From Hot Topic

Hot Topic
Hot Topic

Halloween is fast approaching, and that means it's time to start picking up those decorations, planning your costume, and settling down for a few monster movie marathons. Hot Topic is already way ahead of you, with a selection of costumes and accessories based on fan-favorite movies and TV shows like Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Stranger Things, and Hocus Pocus. We've picked out some of our favorites for you to check out below.

Harry Potter

1. Beauxbatons Hat and Cape Uniform; $60

Hot Topic

If Fleur Delacour is your favorite character from the Triwizard Tournament, then this look is for you. Beauxbatons baby blue hat and cape can now be yours to prance around in and pretend you're from the magical French academy for young witches.

Buy it: Beauxbatons Hat, Beauxbatons Cape

2. Hogwarts Zip-Up Hoodie Cloak; $55

Hot Topic

One of the most iconic parts of the Hogwarts uniform is the cloak. The sweeping black robes looked so official and mystical in the movies that it almost seems wrong not to wear one if you want to be a Hogwarts student for Halloween. These hoodie cloaks are available in all four house colors.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Hogwarts Cardigan Sweater; $49

Hot Topic

Much like the cloak, the sweater vests and cardigans the students at Hogwarts got to wear are essential to any costume. You can choose from the four house crests and colors, so you can show your allegiance while also making a fashion statement.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Hogwarts Plaid Skirtall; $45

Hot Topic

Though this isn't a look you'd recognize from the Harry Potter movies, these plaid skirtalls—skirt overalls, basically—feature the crest and colors of whichever house you represent.

Buy it: Hot Topic

Star Wars

1. The Mandalorian Helmet; $17

Hot Topic

With the second season of The Mandalorian coming out right in time for Halloween, going as one of the show's main characters is a no-brainer. And since you probably can't pull off the Baby Yoda look, this simple Mando helmet is your best option.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Yoda Pet Costume; $20

Hot Topic

Baby Yoda is easily the cutest thing to emerge from the new Disney+ series, and there's no shortage of merchandise with that little green face plastered across it. From Amazon Echo Dots to slippers to LEGO sets, the little rascal is everywhere. But if you're more a fan of classic Yoda, you can impose your love of the character on your dog with this costume, complete with floppy green ears and tiny Jedi robe.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Force Awakens Rey Costume; $48

Hot Topic

Rey represents a new generation of Star Wars hero, and her costume during her time on Jakku from The Force Awakens is still her most iconic look. It's also a costume that's simple enough to throw on for Halloween and still feel comfortable in.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. R2-D2 with Pumpkin Decoration; $50

Hot Topic

When trick-or-treaters stop to collect candy from your house, greet them with this inflatable R2-D2 decoration that's primed for Halloween. Standing around 3 feet tall, this will show off your love for a galaxy far, far away and your holiday spirit.

Buy it: Hot Topic

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1. Sally Scrunchies Set; $10

Hot Topic

If you're looking to embrace your The Nightmare Before Christmas love in a more subtle way, opt for these Sally-approved scrunchies that embody the colors of the movie without going too far overboard.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Jack Skellington Button-Up Shirt; $35

Hot Topic

If Jack Skellington is your ultimate fashion hero, then this button-up pinstriped shirt is the ticket for you. It mimics Jack's look right down to the unique bat-shaped collar.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Jack and Sally 'Love is Eternal' Eyeshadow Palette; $17

Hot Topic

Makeup inspired by your favorite characters is the key to completing a Halloween look, and this palette will help you make a colorful, smokey eye featuring shades seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You can even use these colors long after Halloween is over once you've mastered your favorite style.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Zero Dog Costume; $29

Hot Topic

The real star of The Nightmare Before Christmas has to be the dog, Zero, and now you can drape your own pooch in the ghostly visage for under $30.

Buy it: Hop Topic

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30 Offbeat Holidays to Celebrate In October

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October—the spookiest month of the year—is upon, and with it, a calendar full of offbeat holidays. Between your autumnal walks, horror movie marathons, and oh, National Cat Day on October 29 (which is basically the year's most important holiday here at Mental Floss), see if you can squeeze in a few of these unconventional celebrations.

1. October 1: World Vegetarian Day

It's easy enough to eat meat-free for a day, but this celebration is intended to kick off a month of vegetarian awareness and encourage more lasting change.

2. October 2: World Farm Animals Day

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This may seem at odds with World Vegetarian Day, until you consider that this is actually a day to protest the farm in farm animal and the cruel conditions it implies.

3. October 2: National Custodian Day

Because really, we should be celebrating them every day.

4. October 2: World Smile Day

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If the calendar says you have to do it, you have to do it.

5. October 4: Ten-Four Day

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The fourth day of the 10th month of the year is the day the world celebrates radio operators, to which we say, “Ten-Four.”

6. October 4: National Ships-In-Bottles Day

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Someone spent a lot of time making this art happen, so let's take a little time to appreciate it.

7. October 8: National Pierogi Day

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On this day in 1952, pierogies were first delivered to a grocery store in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and we’ve been devouring them ever since.

8. October 10: National Handbag Day

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We carry them around, but in many ways, it’s the handbags that carry us.

9. October 10: National Cake Decorating Day

Making a boxed cake recipe and applying the frosting with a butter knife definitely counts.

10. October 11: Southern Food Heritage Day

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Sorry, but if you're not eating a plate of chicken and waffles like the one above (or something equally Southern) on October 11, you're doing it wrong.

11. October 14: International Top Spinning Day

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A good day to head to the toy store and take a spin.

12. October 15: National Grouch Day

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For those who love one, and those who are one.

13. October 15: Get Smart About Credit Day

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This American Bankers Association holiday is all about educating the public on credit—and if that stresses you out, you should probably be observing this quirky commemoration.

14. October 16: Dictionary Day

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October 16th is Noah Webster’s birthday, so take a break from your lackadaisical use of the English language, k?

15. October 17: Sweetest Day

Traditionally celebrated in the Midwest and Northeastern United States, Sweetest Day is a lot like Valentine's Day, which—depending on your outlook—is either a very good thing or a very bad thing.

16. October 19: Evaluate Your Life Day

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It’s time.

17. October 21: Hagfish Day

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These eel-shaped, slime-producing fish are fairly disgusting (seriously), but they're also kind of awesome. They have four hearts, have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and can feed through their skin. So while it might not be beautiful, the humble hagfish does deserve a little love and respect.

18. October 22: Smart Is Cool Day

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This is one that holiday that Mental Floss HQ can really get behind.

19. October 23: National Mole Day

Neither a tribute to the animal, nor a skin feature, nor an undercover spy, Mole Day honors Avogadro's Number, which is a basic measuring unit in chemistry.

20. October 23: Canning Day

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Nicolas Appert—the inventor of hermetically sealed food preservation and the "father of canning"—was born around this time circa 1750, and this day celebrates all things that come in jars. So, you know, put a lid on it.

21. October 25: Mother-in-Law Day

Unfortunately, this comes after National Forgiveness Day, so if you forget to give her a call it might be a long year before she forgives you.

22. October 26: National Mule Day

Now that you’ve celebrated moles, give a tip of the hat to mules—literal ones this time. On October 26, 1785, a pair of Spanish mules arrived in the U.S. as a gift from King Charles III. They’re said to have been the first mules bred in this country, by George Washington himself.

23. October 27: Cranky Co-workers Day

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Not that you have any of those ...

24. October 29: National Cat Day

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We know you don’t need a date in the calendar for this, but it makes your cat-filled Instagram feeds all that much more justified.

25. October 30: National Candy Corn Day

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Feel free to debate the merits of a holiday for this highly controversial, tricolored confection.

26. October 30: Checklists Day

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Put this one on your to-do list!

27. October 30: Create A Great Funeral Day

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Much of October is spent focused on ghouls and goblins, but this day is all about confronting the scariest thing of all: mortality. Between your apple orchard outings and haunted house trips, make sure you and your loved ones have a plan for after you've shuffled off this mortal coil. Happy October?

28. October 30: Haunted Refrigerator Night

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This offbeat holi-night is about exploring the darker corners and containers of your fridge. After all, we've all got some metaphorical skeletons lurking in there.

29. October 31: National Magic Day

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Halloween, shmalloween. This holiday is fittingly held on the anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini.

30. October 31: National Knock-Knock Jokes Day

There's no better time than the spookiest day of the year to tell some good (or bad) knock-knock jokes.