Born in the United States of mixed ethnic and religious heritage, Santa Claus embodies the American ideal of the nation as a great melting pot of cultural identities. Santa Claus became an important folk figure in the second half of the nineteenth century, about the time when Americans were beginning to celebrate Christmas in large numbers (see also Christmas in Nineteenth-Century America). Santa Claus bears a good deal of resemblance to his closest relative, the old European gift bringer St. Nicholas. Indeed “St. Nick” serves as one of Santa’s nicknames.
While the origins of many legendary figures remain obscure, re-searchers have traced the basic framework of the Santa Claus myth back to the creative works of three individuals: writer Washington Irving (1783-1859), scholar Clement C. Moore (1779-1863), and illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902). These men, in turn, drew on elements of European and Euro-American Christmas folklore in their portrayals of the Christmas gift bringer. Interestingly enough, Americans embraced this “ready-made” folklore in the late nineteenth century, a time when ready-made goods of all kinds became widely available due to the rise of industrial manufacturing.
Today Santa Claus reigns as an icon of American Christmas celebrations. Many Christmas decorations bear his image, and popular songs tell of his North Pole and Christmas Eve activities. Nearly every American child can tell you that Santa is a plump, old man with a white beard who wears a baggy red suit and cap trimmed with white fur. Many send letters to his North Pole workshop describing the gifts they would like to receive for Christmas (see also Children’s Letters). They eagerly await Christmas Eve, when he loads his sled with toys for good girls and boys and flies around the world, sliding down chimneys to place the presents under decorated Christmas trees. As if to confirm this Christmas fairy tale, men in Santa suits regularly appear on street corners, at office parties, and in department and toy stores around Christmas time.
Santa Claus in a sleigh in a reindeer sleigh.