The Holly Jolly History of the Santa Suit

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When you think of Santa, exactly one outfit comes to mind: boots, a red suit with white trim, and a matching stocking cap. The icon didn’t always dress this way, though. Over time—hundreds of years, in fact—the expanding mythology of Old Saint Nick crystallized the sartorial staples of Christmas lore. In the very beginning, he was simply a robe-wearing holy man.


Santa Claus’s pious ancestor was St. Nicholas—a 4th century Greek bishop-turned-saint from an area that is now Turkey, whose generous feats included leaving coins in the shoes and stockings of children (sounds familiar) and paying the dowries of three poor women, so that they might avoid a life of prostitution (less familiar). In fact, St. Nicholas is believed to be one of the people recognized as a saint before the official canonization process was established in the late 10th century. Fittingly, early portrayals show him clad in traditional bishop’s robes.

Long after his death on December 6, 343 CE—the anniversary of which became known as St. Nicholas Day—St. Nicholas remained a popular figure in Europe until the Protestant Reformation, where the observance of saints was condemned. Despite this, the tradition largely endured throughout Europe, with the exception of some staunchly Protestant areas, which began to replace St. Nicholas with their own yuletide patriarchs, like England’s Father Christmas (who was often portrayed as a kindly old man in fur robes), among others. The idea of Santa Claus, let alone his suit, wouldn’t be formed for a couple hundred more years.


As detailed in Bruce David Forbes’s Christmas: A Candid History, it was a man named John Pintard who led the major push toward the recognition of St. Nicholas in American popular culture. Pintard was a merchant and philanthropist, whose civic cred includes being a key figure behind both New York’s first savings bank and the American Bible Society. He was elected the first secretary of the New York Historical Society in 1805, and keeping in mind the city’s Dutch heritage, he and the Society established an annual Saint Nicholas Day Dinner, the first of which took place on December 6, 1810. Pintard tasked artist Alexander Anderson with drawing a picture of the saint to be distributed at the event. In the resulting work, St. Nicholas is portrayed as traditionally saintly—barefoot and clad in long bishop’s robes. While the outfit would never make it to the secular mainstream, you can spot the familiar title “Sancte Claus” in the Dutch captions below the image, a clear predecessor to today’s “Santa Claus.”

Around the same time as Pintard’s initiative, a (perhaps unlikely) figure from American literary history would step in to popularize Saint Nick: Washington Irving. On Saint Nicholas Day in 1809, the author published A History of New York: a satirical account of the city’s founding that heightened and caricatured the city’s Dutch roots. Written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker (which would later give birth to the New Yorker nickname “Knickerbocker,” as in the New York Knicks), A History detailed New Amsterdam’s founders arriving on a ship bearing a figurehead of Saint Nicholas on its bow, describing it “a goodly image of St. Nicholas, equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk-hose, and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit.” While this look was still a long way off from the modern Santa suit, A History of New York did contribute to modern Santa lore, with its St. Nicholas Day depiction of a gift-filled carriage helmed by a jolly, 'winking' St. Nick, a portrayal that would later find its way into a much more famous holiday tale.

The tale in question? “A Visit From St. Nicholas”—sometimes known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—by Clement Clarke Moore (or Henry Livingston, Jr.). First published anonymously in 1823, the popular poem solidified a few major aspects of Santa lore (outfit included) at a time when the legend of St. Nick still varied widely. With lines that describe St. Nick as “dressed in all fur, from his head to his foot,” whose “cheeks were like roses” and with a “nose like a cherry,” not to mention his beard “as white as the snow,” the poem offered a clear visualization of Santa, right down to his physique: “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” Not everything stuck, though. Throughout the poem, St. Nick is characterized as a pint-sized elf with a “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer,” an image that might have been pushed aside by the next great depiction of Santa, which would come a couple decades later in 1863, from “The Father of the American Cartoon,” Thomas Nast.


Thomas Nast may have been known for his political cartoons, like his depictions of Boss Tweed, but he’s also partially responsible for what we recognize today as the Santa suit. From 1863 to 1886, Nast regularly contributed drawings of Santa Claus to Harper’s Weekly, heavily influenced by “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” as well as his German heritage. The American image of Santa was now definitively fat and usually short, though not necessarily “miniature.” The tall, spindly “Father Christmas” figure popular in European depictions gave way to the jolly fellow described in Moore’s poem. Along with his signature belly, Nast’s Santa sported a bushy white beard, boots, and a belted fur ‘suit’ (which looks kind of like long underwear) and cap.

Nast’s contributions to Kris Kringle lore didn’t stop at his outfit, either—they also popularized the notion of Santa’s “naughty or nice” lists. The drawings show the influence of Nast’s Bavarian childhood in their similarities to Pelznickel, the “stern German gift-bringer” who, clad in all furs, carried gifts for good children and threatened naughty children with switches. The Pelznickel influence may be why some of Nast’s Santas wear a suit that looks more like deerskins than the luxurious red and white we now associate with St. Nick. (Interestingly, Pelznickel was first popularized in post-Protestant Reformation Germany as a secular alternative to St. Nicholas after the honoring of saints had been condemned.) In 1890, Nast published a collection of his Santa drawings entitled Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings for the Human Race. Though his style of cartooning was starting to be considered outdated at the time, the anthology featured one of the most popular and enduring images of Santa: that of this jolly bearded gentleman, clad in red, holding a pipe and an armful of toys. To this day, Nast’s German hometown of Landau honors their native son’s contributions to Santa lore with their annual Christmas market, the Thomas-Nast-Nikolausmarkt.

Through the turn of the century, the Santa suit continued to evolve. L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus provided an elaborate backstory and daring adventures for its hero, but a red suit still wasn’t the norm, as shown on the book’s first edition cover, published in 1902. One of the first times Santa is featured wearing the iconic red coat is on the cover of Puck magazine, widely regarded as America’s first successful humor magazine. In the 1901 image, Santa offers toys to a little boy and girl, who reject the gifts in favor of the works of Montaigne and Tolstoy; in 1902, a rather saucy cartoon shows Santa climbing in through the bedroom window of two Victorian ladies, each planting a kiss on his cheek. Both covers prominently feature St. Nick in a white-trimmed red suit and hat, carbon copies of the iconic Santa suit we recognize today.

The Santa suit wasn’t done changing, though; it would be again modernized and re-popularized, as portrayals became less cartoonish and more human. Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of Santa first appeared on a 1913 cover of Boys’ Life magazine, and soon evolved into a much more naturalistic Santa, who could, for instance, doze off in a simple white shirt and apron. As these depictions made their way into culture consciousness, the red Santa Suit as we know it began to cement its status.


Full ubiquity would come with now-iconic Coca-Cola advertisements. While many credit Coke with inventing the Santa we know today, you now know that they were only a piece in the larger puzzle. After a brief appearance in Coke ads in the 1920s, artist Fred Mizen drew Santa enjoying a Coke at a busy soda fountain for an ad that ran in 1930 when the company was looking to up its cold-weather sales. Following the ad’s success, Coca-Cola looked to stake a further claim as Santa’s beverage of choice. According to a history section on Coke’s website, “Archie Lee, the D'Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the campaign to show a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic [. . .] showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa.” The following Christmas, Coke debuted Haddon Sundblom’s Santa, which featured the same jolly, white-bearded man in the red suit. This time though, Santa looked even more human, with ruddy cheeks and wrinkles marking his animated face. Most importantly, due to Coca-Cola’s enormous advertising presence, Sundblom’s image reached far and wide, thereby solidifying Santa’s specific look into the imaginations of millions.

Decades later, a world of Santa impersonators has a whole costume industry doesn’t just offer a unified vision of Kris Kringle, but a luxe one, too. Most professional Santas own multiple suits ranging in price from $500 to $5,000, and the commitment doesn’t stop there. Some companies, like The Noerr Programs Corporation, specialize in delivering the whole Santa experience: the company’s headquarters, christened The Noerr Pole, provides potential Santas with intricate, theatrical-quality costuming as well as specific training. (They require that Santas be “naturally bearded gentlemen” to ensure each one is prepared to Create Holiday Magic!® Yes, they trademarked that.) We’ve come a long way since the Salvation Army started sending out volunteers in Santa suits in the late 1800s.

For amateurs wishing to try the Santa suit on for size, there’s always SantaCon. In the official guidelines, it’s stated: “A Santa hat alone is not enough. You don't have to dress exactly like Santa but the theme is red.” Sorry, Pelznickel.