Santa Claus, as we know him today, is the product of an advertising campaign by Coca-Cola in the 1920s and ’30s, as noted in “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus,” a book by Adam English published last year.
“In an effort to boost winter sales, attract younger consumers and improve its image after attacks from the Women’s Temperance Union, the Coca-Cola Company ... hired artist Haddon Sundblom to paint the big man into its advertisements (Santa posing cheerfully with a bottle of Coke).
“The wide beard of white, the knobby nose, the wind-chapped cheeks, the bright eyes and grandfatherly smile, and, of course, the red suit with white trim and black belt – this is Sundblom’s Santa. Every movie or commercial depiction since is based in some degree on Sundblom’s vision.”
The real Santa Claus, English said, can be traced back to Saint Nicholas, a man born to Christian parents in the late third century in Myra, a town in present-day southern Turkey. Orphaned at about age 18, he inherited his parents’ wealth and gave it to others in need. He also became a priest and eventually a bishop, one who attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which was convened by the Emporer Constantine and led to the first version of the Nicene Creed, still recited in many churches.
Nicholas’ most famous act of gift-giving was to throw three bags of gold coins through a window (no glass or screens in those days) into the home of an impoverished man who had three unmarried daughters. The gold provided a dowry for the girls and increased the faith of the father.
“As the story was told and retold,” English wrote, “new details were added. In one version, the money bags landed in the girls’ shoes. In another, Nicholas found that the windows of the house were shut, so he was forced to drop the bags of gold down the chimney where they fell into one of the girls’ stockings, which had been hung by the fireplace to dry.”
The story became well-known in the Middle Ages and Nicholas began to be incorporated into religious art, always recognizable because of his three golden gifts. In Raphael’s painting from 1505 known as the “Ansidei Madonna,” for example, Mary and a plump baby Jesus are sitting on a throne with John the Baptist on the left and St. Nicholas on the right, three circles of gold at his feet.
The real St. Nick, by the way, according to an icon painted in the late seventh century, shows a man with white hair and a beard wearing priestly robes of crimson and gold. No chubby cheeks or twinkling eyes in sight. He is pictured with three other saints, including the biblical early church leaders Paul and Peter.
English notes that Nicholas has been confused with a later Saint Nicholas who lived 200 years later, but that the two are not the same. Early authors said Saint Nicholas “devoted himself to justice, to righting wrongs and correcting inequities. ... He was more than a public defender, of course; he was a minister of God.”
He became well known in other countries. Stories about him are prominent in Russia, in particular, where several shrines and churches have been built in his honor.
The book relates other stories of his actions, faith and special connection to children, as well as miracles associated with his life and even after his death.
As the author points out, many scholars debate the existence of the man or confuse him with other people. But reading the stories, it’s easy to see how he eventually morphed into the Santa Claus of today, although that one lacks the saint’s faith.
This time of year is filled with faith, candlelight, carols and services that the real St. Nick would have understood. Here is a partial list of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, listed by the time of the earliest service: